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Higher Ed v. Lower Ed: Pursuing Personalized Learning — in Opposing Directions?

MOOCs are the new idea in higher ed. Massively open, online courses. We can peg the start of this fad-about-to-cross-the-chasm on the Thrun and Norvig AI Course[1] at Stanford in 2011. While there are a number of issues that need to be resolved in the MOOC model (e.g., low student finishing rates, money needs to change hands some how, etc.) MOOCs in some of their forms or another are here to stay. As Thomas Friedman put it in his New York Times op-ed piece published May 15, 2012, "In five years this will be a huge industry."[2]

Several organizations have risen up to carry the MOOC-ish banner (Coursera, Udacity, EdX, XTOL, Venture Labs, etc.) While the business models of these for-profit/not-for-profit organizations are different, there is a common underlying theme: make learning opportunities available far and wide; give learners ready access to a cornucopia of learning resources; let learners decide what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. Rather than constraining what and how an individual learns, these new organizations are all about opening up possibilities and giving the learner the opportunity to choose his/her own learning path.

What's the new, new thing in lower ed, i.e. K-12? Personalized instruction. Feed the click-stream data produced as a student interacts with the learning environment into an algorithm; let the algorithm direct the student down a personalized path that the algorithm says is the optimum/best learning path for that student. Edgenuity formerly known as E2020, Edmentum formerly known as Plato[3] (yes, THAT Plato), Amplify are three organizations providing personalized instruction algorithms. (Oh yes, the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation as well as the United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan also promote this notion of personalized instruction for K-12.)

Both Higher Ed and Lower Ed are pursuing personalized learning. But they are going in opposite directions. Higher Ed says... learner, here are opportunities for learning, you choose. Lower Ed says... learner, an algorithm knows best what opportunities you need for learning; it chooses.

After keynoting the Institute of Applied Technology's Technological Education Conference 2012 in Abu Dhabi on April 1, we served on a panel of faculty and high school students discussing the use of mobile devices in high school education. In response to a question about personalized learning, a high school student on the panel said, in effect, that it was important to him to be able to choose what he wanted to learn and when he wanted to learn and that mobile devices helped in that endeavor.

The young lad clearly felt that personalized learning was important — but he also felt that he should be in charge of that personalization process — not some essentially anonymous, opaque algorithm. (Curriculum publishers usually provide substantive educational rationales, with references to the research literature, to support the design of the lessons in their curriculum. Given how bloody important those personalization algorithms are, perhaps they too should be supported by intellectual arguments and be open to inspection.)

We could be cheeky and say: if lower ed's take on personalized learning is so right, why isn't higher ed pursuing that same approach? Or we could be more direct and say: We think it is very risky to leave an algorithm in charge of directing a child's learning path. How about we say both.

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at