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Kelli Etheredge: Personalized Learning for Global Citizens (White Paper Interviews)


by Kelli Etheredge
Expert Educator Columnist, USA

Personalized Learning is a hot topic in education.  As with many buzzwords in education, however, depending upon who are you listening to, sometimes, it is hard to quantify what personalized learning really means and what value it adds to learning environments.  Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to read the whitepaper Personalized Learning for Global Citizens and then interview its authors, Kathryn Kennedy, Joseph R. Freidhoff, and Kristen DeBruler from the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute.  The whitepaper is part of Microsoft in Education’s Transformation Framework series.  In it, Dr. Kennedy and her colleagues discuss the research on personalized learning, the value technology offers when designing a personalized learning environment, and the guiding principles for leaders and educators when implementing a personalized learning program. 

I highly recommend Personalized Learning for Global Citizens for all educators and education leaders.  Kennedy and her team not only highlight the research on the topic, but provide practical applications and concrete examples related to the research.  Specifically, the paper itemizes the twelve elements of personalized learning according to the publication “How Children Learn.”  Then, Kennedy and her team discuss each element, providing research related to the topic as well as classroom examples.  Their approach to the subject allows educators and leaders alike the opportunity to glean specific implementation practices that they could use in their classroom tomorrow. 

After reading the paper, Dr. Kennedy’s team was kind enough to answer some of my questions.  Once you have read the paper, check out our conversation:

Maker projects and project based learning take time and organization (and often money).  Some teachers feel that they cannot afford to implement such projects because of the “costs” to the classroom.  What would you say to teachers who feel the pressure of standardized testing and fear they cannot risk moving away from the known structure of prepping for the test to the unknown result of maker projects and PBL experiences?

That’s a great question, and one that comes up quite a bit in education systems nationwide. Peter Arashiro, MVU’s Instructional Design and Systems Manager, explains that the fear of not knowing what the outcome will be can often stump even some of the most innovative teachers, so they’ll stick to the same instructional strategy and not allow themselves to try something new. Arashiro also emphasized instead of approaching this new way of learning as something that needs to be fixed, educators should look at it as an opportunity to engage students in their learning and help them learn what they need to learn in order to be successful on standardized tests. By taking a close look at the kinds of facts, concepts, principles, and procedures students need to learn, you already know a lot about what the results of a maker project or PBL experience should be. Oftentimes teachers will focus more on the activity aspect of the project rather than specific and intended outcomes. Once you have identified the intended outcomes, then your attention can turn to identifying or designing projects that will be appropriate for and consistent with these outcomes. 

With the help of the MVU’s MyBlend Team, specifically Instructional Designer Jeff Gerlach, there are Michigan teachers who are implementing PBL in their classrooms. One teacher, Gerlach shared, is having students create their own businesses, from inception through proposal and working on what an authentic “established” or “accepted” looks like. While it’s far from a polished PBL lesson at this point, it relies heavily on the question: How is a new business created? This open-ended question provides space for students to be creative, challenging themselves to think on their feet.

Also part of the MyBlend Team is Jamie Dewitt, Senior Blended Learning Specialist. She wholeheartedly believes that teachers should not need to give up maker projects and PBL experiences due to the pressures of standardized tests. Yes, there is pressure, and, yes, we need to make sure students can perform. But it is arguably more important that students develop the sophisticated knowledge necessary to perform in subsequent courses, in the workplace, and/or in higher education. The common core standards in math, for example, include a set of practice standards that encourage just that. Students should be able to think critically, evaluate problems, and argue about their reasoning. Using blended learning strategies, teachers are now able to provide PBL extensions of traditional direct instruction techniques by using two modes of learning (online and face-to-face). This provides students with more personalized and differentiated learning experiences and helps teachers achieve both the structured lesson and the extension projects.

The project between students in Michigan and the United Kingdom is incredibly interesting.  Can you share how the schools connected and collaborated throughout the year?

David Young, MVU’s Senior Instructional Designer, was one of the creators and facilitators of this project. The students connected with each other through discussion boards that served as introductions to each unit throughout the semester. These were designed to be casual conversations that would be fun and also promote discussion about cultural differences. Topics included things like holidays, travel, television, music, politics, and global issues. Students completed a group project with each other in which they proposed practical ways to impact global issues in their own areas. The classes also met together as a large group via Skype. In practice this was very challenging because the students in Michigan were completing the full course for credit and the students in the UK were completing portions of the course voluntarily, essentially in an after-school club kind of setting. We had the most success with the unit discussion boards. After one semester, the UK school was not able to continue because our contact there changed positions, and they couldn’t fit it in to their curriculum to offer it as a credit-bearing course.

In your article, you reported that research shows that self-regulation is an important skill.  It, however, doesn’t come naturally to many students.  When should teachers begin to teach the skills of self-regulation?  How can teachers help students learn how to self-regulate?

Rebecca Stimson, the Senior Writer for MVU’s research arm, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI), shared a resource about the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition and work they’ve done with Kenowa Schools in Grand Rapids to introduce and use personalized mastery and continuous improvement tools with middle school students. Please see Another great resource is David Langford’s Quality Learning Tools with high school students. Please see

Jeff Gerlach, Instructional Designer at MVU’s MyBlend program, believes self-regulation is incredibly interesting. Gerlach relayed a story about a school visit that he and Jamie Dewitt, Senior Blended Learning Specialist at MVU’s MyBlend Program, attended. During this school visit, they had a discussion with some teachers. The teachers’ mindset was very much about how to control students in a digital space; forcing accountability and limiting access to distractions. Gerlach’s first instinct was to talk about culture building, about shifting our view from accountability to opportunities for building formative feedback loops. If teachers build intentional elements of their blended/online designs that let them monitor student learning, it enhances rapport building. From this point, teachers can provide feedback on learning gaps… but also ask questions about how students are managing their own workflow. Offering an opportunity for students to take a metacognitive view into their patterns and how they might enhance their productivity. Another piece that this allows for is students’ control over their own learning. Dewitt added that this is a very interesting topic! This group of teachers were struggling with the “how do we know they did it” question. Aside from handcuffing the students to a computer and monitoring their iPads to make sure they do not check on their “Clash of Clans” army, it is hard to monitor exactly if they read an article, for example. What we need to do is start focusing on our specific learning targets. This, for example, could mean that we should question is it really our goal to have the students read an article about a topic, or are we really interested in how they synthesize and apply the knowledge they learned? Dewitt’s guess is that it would be the latter. Encourage teachers to develop online and face-to-face activities that focus on the deep and rich learning outcomes that you expect of the students. Rather than “read the article” activities, try things like “use this article as a guide as you discuss…” and teachers may see more self-regulation from their students.

You also point out that research supports the fact that time for deliberate practice is crucial to learning.  As a result, some states are considering moving to “competency, mastery, or proficiency-based paths.”  In light of our current high stakes testing system as well as college admission standards, how realistic is it to think that schools can move towards a competency-based system?  What would have to change to get there?

Rebecca Stimson, Senior Writer within MVU’s MVLRI encourages readers to look at New Hampshire as an example of schools that are effectively implementing competency-based education. The state of Maine, while calling their approach “proficiency-based” education, is following suit as well. Please see:

Jamie Dewitt, Senior Blended Learning Specialist at MVU’s MyBlend program says the current “factory model” of schools does not support personalized and competency based learning (See “Blended” by Horn and Staker in the intro). Models (like Teach to One) that use blended learning rotation help teachers and students focus on specific and personalized goals and learning targets. Dewitt believes, with intentional adoption and careful implementation, schools could move into this space in a 2-4 year timeline. In order to do this, as would be the case in many environments making a move to a different model, effective change management practices would be useful to make sure all stakeholders are on board and supportive.

Do you have recommendations for scaffolding devices that support the transfer of knowledge from one context to another?  Any examples you can share?

Peter Arashiro, MVU’s MVU’s Instructional Design and Systems Manager explains that while transfer is one of the main goals of education, it isn’t something that comes easily or happens quickly. Only after having built up a certain level of foundational knowledge (competence) and being exposed to a high number of examples and situations, where foundational knowledge is continuously accessed, recalled, applied, and added to, can a student be expected to transfer what they know from one context to another, with some level of ease and fluency. This is basically the difference between a novice and an expert. One of the most common scaffolding strategies is the use of analogies. And while analogies are not an unfamiliar strategy to teachers, what may not be apparent is just how effective they can be if used appropriately. The power of analogies comes from the degree of similarity between the analogy and what is being learned, the level of familiarity the learner has with the analogy, and the ability of a teacher to guide students in making the connections to new contexts. In a great example of using analogies effectively to provide scaffolding, Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur explains the basic concept of thermal expansion (where materials expand due to atoms moving further apart when heated) to students and then shows a picture of a metal plate with a circular hole in it. He asks students to predict what will happen to the hole when the metal plate is heated: Does it get smaller, larger, or stay the same? For students who think the hole should get smaller because the atoms will expand into the empty space, he provides the following analogy: Imagine 50 people standing shoulder to shoulder in a circle as a representation of the atoms along the edge of the hole in the metal plate, and then have them step backwards in order to move away from each other. This will cause the hole to get larger. Another analogy he uses to explain the concept of thermal expansion is when someone runs hot water over a pickle jar lid that is stuck, where the heat causes the metal lid to expand outward and allow it to loosen. In both analogies the key aspects and conditions of thermal expansion are present, both use situations that students are familiar with and can understand, and then there is a teacher who can connect the key parts between the analogy and what is being learned. And if you think about it, good analogies can very well be considered new contexts. Please see Eric Mazur’ Turning Lectures into Learning (Cornell Center for Teaching Excellence) at

You note:  “One of the greatest challenges for personalization in schools is that it is not implemented in a way that it can be brought to scale, typically due to such issues as human capital limitations, lack of access to necessary resources, and resistance to change, to name a few.”  Any guidance on how to bring it to scale?

Jamie Dewitt, Senior Blended Learning Specialist at MVU’s MyBlend program, reiterates that to scale, blended learning is the strategy. If we go back to Horn’s thoughts in his intro to “Blended,” it is unreasonable to assume that every school can provide traditional 1-1 personalized attention (a tutor) to every student. We know it makes a difference (Blooms’ 2 standard deviation or the modified .76 standard deviations), but traditional schools cannot accommodate this. So we scale by using technology, online components to lessons, differentiated activities both face-to-face and online and an attention to individual student growth and learning goals. Blending classroom instruction and learning activities give teachers and students the flexibility and the personalization to reduce limitations.

Thank you to Kathryn Kennedy, Joseph R. Freidhoff, and Kristen DeBruler, and the following members of their team who helped answer my questions:

Peter Arashiro, Instructional Design and Systems Manager

David Young, Senior Instructional Designer

Jeff Gerlach, Instructional Designer

Rebecca Stimson, Senior Writer

Jamie Dewitt, Senior Blended Learning Specialis

So what do you think?  Have you started implementing a personalized learning environment in your classroom?  What results have you found?  What questions do you have after reading the whitepaper?  Let’s keep the conversation going on this important topic by sharing our challenges and our ideas with each other!


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