Reflections on Learning
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February 2012
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Personalized Learning a Path to Innovation?

February 23, 2012   

Jonah Lehrer posed an interesting question in the article “Cultivating Genius” in Wired this month (March, 2012):

            “How can we increase the pace of innovation?”

In examining some of the hotbeds of innovation and talent over the centuries – Athens between 440 and 380 BC, and Florence between 1440 and 1490 for example, he posits that it is not just coincidence that so many new ideas, innovations and artistic masterpieces arose from these locations in these short periods of time. One element he identifies as having a significant influence is education.

“All of these flourishing cultures pioneered new forms of teaching and learning. Medieval
Florence saw the rise of the apprentice-master model, which let young artists
learn from veteran experts. Elizabethan England made a concerted effort to
educate its middle-class males.”

Fast forward to early 21st century America, and consider what new forms of teaching and learning have the potential to create the same kind of innovation surge. I believe that Personalized Learning, especially when enabled through access to technology communication tools and robust networks has this potential.

At the Model Schools Conference in 2010, I was able to hear about New Hampshire’s bold educational reform efforts. The state board of education eliminated seat time – imagine – the demise of the Carnegie Unit!  But that is not all. They also made it possible for students to earn credit for work that they do outside of the classroom. So, if a student is a gymnast, for instance, they may not need to take a PE class if they can offer proof to a teacher-coach that they achieved mastery on the required standards. Or, if a student volunteers at the local science museum, they could earn credit in a similar manner. Or – if they work as an intern with professionals in various fields, there would be more opportunities to earn credit . The final piece of this reform package was to switch to standards-based grading.  Our presenter estimated that within 5 years, schools would begin to look very different as a result of these changes. Students wouldn’t be grouped by age, and not all would be in school every day.  Teachers would shift more into the role of coaches.

To me, this is the power of personalized learning. Students learn what they want, when they want, how they want.  The school district and state would still guide student learning through the standards, but the path to mastery would look different for every child.

Could this be the impetus for a “hotbed of innovation” in the future, as change takes hold? What do you think?

Why Digital Textbooks Won’t Transform Education

February 3, 2012   


The Obama administration on Wednesday announced that schools should get digital textbooks into students’ hands within five years.  Ostensibly, this is about more than just making sure carrying around 50 or more pounds of textbooks every day won’t cause them permanent bodily damage.  As Karon Cator, director of the Education Department’s office of education technology, states:


“We’re not talking about the print-based textbook now being digital. We’re talking about a much more robust and interactive and engaging environment to support learning.”


So, the reason behind the challenge coming from the Department of Education seems to be that they believe etextbooks hold the power to engage our students and will help them learn more – and perhaps remember more. Hmmm.  I don’t believe what we currently know about how the brain works would support this theory.


I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this, ever since Apple made its big announcement about their new iBooks, their partnership with the Big 3 textbook companies to deliver these kind of “interactive” textbooks and the new iAuthor MAC app where anyone can create their own interactive textbook. I have to admit, I got caught up in the excitement of the moment initially thinking it could transform education as we know it.  I seriously love my iPad, and seldom go anywhere without it. But, I don’t use it much to read, truth be told. I use it to interact, create, and collaborate. I collect ideas, photos, sounds, and organize them to share with others.    I browse and share  the news (my news – through Zite),  I play Words with Friends, I chat with friends  (Twitter & Facebook),  I research at a point of need, curate that information,  and I check email. Ironically, the most recent book I downloaded  on my iPad was Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and I can’t seem to make my way to the end of the book. I have also downloaded the very cool, free Life on Earth textbook in my new and improved iBooks app, but haven’t been motivated to explore it much beyond my first browsing experience.  So –for me, someone who could readily be called addicted to learning, reading on a device that offers so many more appealing ways to learn is difficult, at best. And while I am a “digital immigrant,” I suspect that most of today’s students would agree with me on this point.  I want to learn what I want, when I want, and how I want.  The iPad makes this possible.


Another point that makes me think that etextbooks – no matter how cool they are – will not transform education, is, as my friend Mary Johnson says, a textbook is a textbook.  Cator declares these new textbooks are interactive.  So what?  Manipulating a graphic, watching a video, or answering embedded questions that simply require recall level thinking are not going to assure students learn more or better. Research on how the brain works tells us that it is the active use of the information in new situations that strengthens neural pathways.  (I highly recommend Judy Willis’ work on learning & the brain – check out some of her work here – also Eric Jensen’s work – check out his blog here. )  While brain-based learning does support some of the elements that these multimedia etextbooks can bring to the table,  there are too many other necessary elements to learning that they will not deliver any more than a 5-pound print textbook will.


And – if you are thinking Apple’s new $14.99 textbook price will be more economical in the long run –even with the price of the iPad, think again.  In a meeting with our Apple sales rep this week, we learned that the etextbooks they are offering are essentially consumables.  School districts will be given  a code for the download of the textbook. However, institutions (i.e. school districts) are not permitted to redeem those codes. Only individuals can do this from their personal iTunes accounts.  So –students will own the textbooks forever and ever –not the school districts.  If you currently keep textbooks for 5 years, under Apple’s rules, you will have to buy a new set every year – bringing the net expense to about $75 per book ($15 x 5)  – plus the price of the iPad.


I do believe devices such as iPads that allow for anytime, anywhere  learning have great potential to transform education – but the etextbook part of that – not so much. Students need to be engaged in active learning, problem solving, creating, and sharing. eTextbooks just aren’t an essential part of the equation.