What’s the Difference Between Blended and Personalized Learning?

May 15, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on April 25, 2017. 

Earlier this month, after two exhilarating and exhausting days at the Blended and Personalized Learning Conference in Providence, R.I., (which we cohosted with our partners at Highlander Institute and The Learning Accelerator), I boarded an evening flight back to D.C. Just after takeoff, a school principal from Virginia seated in the row just ahead of me poked his head through the seat to ask:

“So, what’s the difference between blended and personalized learning?”

First off, I want to say kudos to this school leader, who had also attended the conference. Over 48 hours of sharing practices, research, and challenges had me running on fumes. But he was tireless and eager to push the conversation forward.

Second, this moment felt distinctly like a healthy dose of karma given the title we had used for the conference. Not wanting to box ourselves too narrowly into one approach or model, we had taken the route of dubbing the conference theme “blended and personalized learning.” That phrase has become so common in the education lexicon that it’s almost like a single, deeply unfortunate compound noun—blendedandpersonalizedlearning. It’s a mouthful. Not to mention, it hardly lends itself to a pithy hashtag.

I particularly don’t recommend overusing the phrase because collapsing these two terms—blended and personalized—risks diluting the clarity of each and confusing the leaders and educators expected to do the hard work of educating real students in real schools.

So here’s the gist of what I discussed with that school principal, and how we at the Christensen Institute try to make a clear distinction between these related but distinct terms.

Blended learning is a modality of instruction. As we at the Christensen Institute define it, blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns:

  • at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;
  • at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;
  • and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Blended learning, in other words, is a modality in much the same way a textbook, lecture, or project constitutes a modality. It does not refer to a particular philosophy or pedagogy (unless you consider using any technology whatsoever to be a philosophical or pedagogical decision unto itself). Blended learning has both online and offline components. These components of a blended model can be as diverse as the number of students in a given class or as uniform as an utterly traditional classroom.

Put differently, all sorts of learning experiences—from highly behaviorist drill-and-kill exercises to highly constructivist projects or inquiry-based exercises—can be incorporated into online or offline experiences within a blended model. What classifies a school or classroom as blended is not what is being taught, or even the pedagogical decisions of how teaching and learning occurs, but how students access content. If at least some content is delivered online, then an environment is blended.

That said, the current state of blended learning as a modality reflects the current state of education technology as a tool powering that modality. As a result, blended learning in practice can appear to be anchored in particular philosophical or pedagogical characteristics. For example, a large number of blended environments use off-the-shelf online content that offers adaptive exercises to allow students to learn and practice pre-determined content and basic skills. This has led some in the field to bemoan blended learning as at odds with some personalized approaches that aim to allow students to construct their learning from the ground up. But this take on blended learning is short-sighted: it conflates the particular edtech tools gaining traction in schools with blended learning as a modality that stands to evolve as edtech tools themselves do.

Personalized learning, on the other hand, is a broader term, and one that I’m not going to try to define here. (For those interested in definitions circulating in the field, the best synthesis I’ve recently seen is the appendix of the Rhode Island’s statewide personalized learning initiative white paper). But in the current education conversation, personalized learning tends to refer to a host of efforts and models that tailor learning and development to the individual student. These approaches tend to anchor on a particular philosophy about what outcomes we want students to reach and how to best help them get there. And herein, I think, lies a large part of the confusion: the field alternately refers to personalized learning as a collection of modalities and a collection of desired outcomes.

Larry Cuban’s recent look at an array of personalized approaches demonstrates this tendency. Based on his observations of schools in California, Cuban argues that personalized learning exists along a spectrum of corresponding goals and approaches. On one end of the spectrum, personalizing refers to integrating far greater degrees of differentiation to scaffold instruction along a pre-existing set of learning experiences and targets specific behavioral outcomes.

On the other, personalizing refers to moving away from those fixed learning targets or pathways and freeing students to construct learning as they go, in an effort to “reach beyond intellectual and academic outcomes” to cultivate student agency. Many schools, he points out, fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. (I agree more or less with his categorization scheme, although I’d actually argue that his example of VLACS sits much closer to the middle even though he places it at the far end of targeting particular concepts and skills).

Cuban’s spectrum illustrates that to date, schools pursuing personalized learning span a range of philosophies and corresponding modalities.

So back to the original question: what exactly is the difference between blended and personalized learning? Academic debates aside, here’s how I’d summarize it.

Blended learning is an instructional modality that describes integrating technology to deliver some content. Full stop. It’s not more or less than that, and it doesn’t connote a specific set of goals or philosophies.

Personalized learning, on the other hand, is broader and, at least today, connotes philosophical and pedagogical points of view. It’s not just about the mere presence of technology in an instructional model. Rather, personalized learning describes a combination of modalities and goals in a field that is reaching toward better and (and in some cases, new) outcomes for children. Blended learning is often one of those modalities because leveraging some online learning tends to make personalizing learning at scale far more feasible for a single teacher supporting many students spanning different levels of mastery. Depending on the personalized learning outcomes and philosophies a given system subscribes to, blended-learning models and content may look radically different.

Suffice it to say, we had plenty to discuss on the flight.

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About the Author

Julia researches innovative policies and practices in K-12 education, with a focus on competency based education policies, blended learning models, and initiatives to increase students’ social capital.

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