“Well, the term personalized learner doesn’t have an exact definition.”'


This is how Bill Gates dove into a recent post-ASU GSV Summit interview with The Verge. If these words don’t give you pause, they should, particularly coming from one of the key players in advancing traditional learning.

Is personalized learning a methodology? A teaching style? Or merely a buzzword? Perform a simple Google search and it becomes clear—even though it’s a concept that has been discussed for years, we still haven’t reached a consensus as to what it really means. Nor do we all agree that we even really need to know.

Define or Die

Dr. Elliot Soloway, a professor of Education and Engineering at the University of Michigan, summed up his concerns in an interview with Education Week: "Everybody's saying they're doing it—but we have to go one level deeper when we say 'personalized learning’." If schools and technology advocates don't set higher standards for what they mean, the movement "will not be sustainable," Mr. Soloway  claims. "It will peter out.”

Don’t Fence Us In

In his recent EdSurge column, Alexander Hernandez speaks for the other side of this argument, that trying to define the term personalized learning goes against the very core of the concept. “These definitions can limit creativity by suggesting there is not much left to be figured out—only boxes to check. If you hear a school say, ‘Just tell me what to do,’ run for the hills,” urges Mr.  Hernandez.  Break the Curve
Digital education is already chided as being behind the curve (Grovo went so far as to claim it stuck in a 1.0 cycle at the aforementioned ASU GSV Summit).the very worst thing we can do right now with so many eyes on EdTech is get bogged down with rigidity and analysis paralysis. On the other hand, we can’t be spinning our wheels blindly. We need to step back and assess how we’re operating.

Educators should look to the Agile movement, a process used in software companies for decades. First proposed in the 1970s by Dr. Winston Royce, Agile argues software should never be developed like an automotive assembly line where each phase of development must be totally completed before the next can be touched, aptly coined “waterfall” methodology. While manufactures would shudder, Agile calls for a bit of organized chaos—or disorganized structure, depending on whether you see the glass half-full or half-empty.

A key benefit of the waterfall method—that all requirements of a project be perfectly defined before a team starts designing and coding—is also a key obstacle for quickly evolving companies or industries.. It doesn’t matter if the team creates terrific software exactly to spec if, in the time it took to build, business realities changed so that the product is now irrelevant. This is exactly the type of methodology that causes us to become stuck in 1.0 ruts.

Rise Out of the Rut

Wouldn’t it be easier to keep working toward the vision if you could react, adjust, and iterate along the way? Bottlenecks are a huge issue on automotive assembly lines and exhaustive thought has been spent designing systems around them, like Toyota’s famous Kanban (and I thought those supply chain management courses wouldn’t come in handy). People aren’t machines and we can’t be expected to work like them. This is a good thing.

A member of our Metrodigi agile engineering team offers this advice: “Plans change, requirements change, people change, so reevaluate every couple weeks and see where you are.” This advice rings true for the classroom environment as well, where learners join with different backgrounds, aptitudes, interests, and abilities. Learning via Agile methodology allows for flexibility to incorporate all of the variables that will arise over a the duration of a course, a semester, or even the lesson itself.

Just as we know that the old, traditional classroom doesn’t work, a one-size-fits-all form of personalized learning won’t work either. Furthermore, one teacher, company, product, or school doesn’t have the definitive personalized learning solution. With that type of thinking, it’s clear history will continue to repeat itself. What everyone—educators, administrators, CEOs, software engineers, training leaders— involved in education technology, can agree on is that we share one clear goal: to help people learn better. It’s doesn’t matter how we define the process we use to get there—we just have to get there.