Personalization is one of the key leitmotifs in current educational discourse. The message is clear: personalization is good, one-size-fits-all is bad. ‘How to personalize learning and how to differentiate instruction for diverse classrooms are two of the great educational challenges of the 21st century,’ write Trilling and Fadel, leading lights in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). Barack Obama has repeatedly sung the praises of, and the need for, personalized learning and his policies are fleshed out by his Secretary of State, Arne Duncan, in speeches and on the White House blog: ‘President Obama described the promise of personalized learning when he launched the ConnectED initiative last June. Technology is a powerful tool that helps create robust personalized learning environments.’ In the UK, personalized learning has been government mantra for over 10 years. The EU, UNESCO, OECD, the Gates Foundation – everyone, it seems, is singing the same tune.
Personalization, we might all agree, is a good thing. How could it be otherwise? No one these days is going to promote depersonalization or impersonalization in education. What exactly it means, however, is less clear. According to a UNESCO Policy Brief, the term was first used in the context of education in the 1970s by Victor Garcìa Hoz, a senior Spanish educationalist and member of Opus Dei at the University of Madrid. This UNESCO document then points out that ‘unfortunately, up to this date there is no single deﬁnition of this concept’.
In ELT, the term has been used in a very wide variety of ways. These range from the far-reaching ideas of people like Gertrude Moskowitz, who advocated a fundamentally learner-centred form of instruction, to the much more banal practice of getting students to produce a few personalized examples of an item of grammar they have just studied. See Scott Thornbury’s A-Z blog for an interesting discussion of personalization in ELT.
As with education in general, and ELT in particular, ‘personalization’ is also bandied around the adaptive learning table. Duolingo advertises itself as the opposite of one-size-fits-all, and as an online equivalent of the ‘personalized education you can get from a small classroom teacher or private tutor’. Babbel offers a ‘personalized review manager’ and Rosetta Stone’s Classroom online solution allows educational institutions ‘to shift their language program away from a ‘one-size-fits-all-curriculum’ to a more individualized approach’. As far as I can tell, the personalization in these examples is extremely restricted. The language syllabus is fixed and although users can take different routes up the ‘skills tree’ or ‘knowledge graph’, they are totally confined by the pre-determination of those trees and graphs. This is no more personalized learning than asking students to make five true sentences using the present perfect. Arguably, it is even less!
This is not, in any case, the kind of personalization that Obama, the Gates Foundation, Knewton, et al have in mind when they conflate adaptive learning with personalization. Their definition is much broader and summarised in the US National Education Technology Plan of 2010: ‘Personalized learning means instruction is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary (so personalization encompasses differentiation and individualization).’ What drives this is the big data generated by the students’ interactions with the technology (see ‘Part 4: big data and analytics’ of ‘The Guide’ on this blog).
What remains unclear is exactly how this might work in English language learning. Adaptive software can only personalize to the extent that the content of an English language learning programme allows it to do so. It may be true that each student using adaptive software ‘gets a more personalised experience no matter whose content the student is consuming’, as Knewton’s David Liu puts it. But the potential for any really meaningful personalization depends crucially on the nature and extent of this content, along with the possibility of variable learning outcomes. For this reason, we are not likely to see any truly personalized large-scale adaptive learning programs for English any time soon.
Nevertheless, technology is now central to personalized language learning. A good learning platform, which allows learners to connect to ‘social networking systems, podcasts, wikis, blogs, encyclopedias, online dictionaries, webinars, online English courses, various apps’, etc (see Alexandra Chistyakova’s eltdiary), means that personalization could be more easily achieved.
For the time being, at least, adaptive learning systems would seem to work best for ‘those things that can be easily digitized and tested like math problems and reading passages’ writes Barbara Bray . Or low level vocabulary and grammar McNuggets, we might add. Ideal for, say, ‘English Grammar in Use’. But meaningfully personalized language learning?
‘Personalized learning’ sounds very progressive, a utopian educational horizon, and it sounds like it ought to be the future of ELT (as Cleve Miller argues). It also sounds like a pretty good slogan on which to hitch the adaptive bandwagon. But somehow, just somehow, I suspect that when it comes to adaptive learning we’re more likely to see more testing, more data collection and more depersonalization.
 Trilling, B. & Fadel, C. 2009 21st Century Skills (San Francisco: Wiley) p.33
 Personalized learning: a new ICTenabled education approach, UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education, Policy Brief March 2012 iite.unesco.org/pics/publications/en/files/3214716.pdf