How Online Learning Enables Personalized Learning – An Interview with Dr. Lisa Collins

How Online Learning Enables Personalized Learning- An Interview with Dr. Lisa Collins first appeared on Learning Outside the Lines on February 28, 2014.
By: LOtL Editors
When we discuss online learning with online educators and school districts that offer online programs, we often hear that “personalized learning” is one of the greatest benefits of online courses.
Empowering a more personalized, student-centric educational experience has been the driving factor in many recent education trends. Blended learning, flipped learning and other educational trends have been purported to help students learn at their own pace and get the specific curriculum and attention they need.
We recently sat down with Dr. Lisa Collins, the Senior Director for Instruction and Training at our sponsor, Fuel Education, to discuss what personalized learning means, how online learning enables it, and how the online learning experience differs from the traditional school experience. Here is what Dr. Collins had to say:
Learning Outside the Lines: How does the experience of teaching students online differ from teaching students in a traditional classroom environment?
Dr. Collins: I think there are a couple of differences. The biggest benefit of teaching in an online environment is being able to focus on a single student and their individual needs. When you teach in a traditional classroom, you need to worry about every student in that class during that specific time period when you have all of them together. In the online environment, you take away the space and the time. You can dedicate your attention to a specific student.
Another benefit of the online environment is that it is a very data-rich environment. That can be a positive or a negative thing for a teacher, in that they sometimes have more data than they know what to do with. But, as a positive, you know so much more about your students. You know the pattern of how they spend their time. You know whether or not they’ve read the information or spent time on content before they took a quiz or moved on. You can see data about their activity and make an informed decision about whether you want to have an intervention with the student.
When I interview prospective teachers, their biggest fear is not being able to see their students. If you interview them again after they’ve been on the job for three months, they’ll claim the best part of their job is that they’ve built relationships with their students. It’s funny how their biggest fears become the thing they like the best about online teaching.
LearningOtL: What is personalized learning and how does online education enable it? Why does online learning offer a more personalized learning experience for students than the traditional classroom experience?
Dr. Collins: Personalized learning is bringing the educational experience to the student where they are, and meeting their individual needs. It’s not “one size fits all.” It’s a plan for a specific student and their educational goals based around a subject.
Online learning is a tool that can be used to personalize a student’s learning experience. That tool can be used in a brick-and-mortar setting or in a home setting. It can be used in addition to other modalities of education, or it can be used as the only modality of education.
Online education allows differentiation if you’re working in a group. Let’s say you’re in a lab setting and all students are working on math. You can bring online learning into that classroom and allow it to be personalized to each of those students. It doesn’t matter if one is working on fractions, one is working on decimals, and one is working on basic addition. They all are working on math at the same time, but the teacher can give them online lessons that are personalized each student’s skills.
When students learn online, the data generated is instrumental in personalizing the pace of the curriculum. If they’re struggling with something, the online program can serve up additional resources for them, or the teacher can see their pattern and intervene. Or, if they’re grasping something really well, the online program or teacher can see they’re doing well and provide them with enrichment opportunities. The fact that it’s a data-rich environment helps with this personalization.
When a teacher is working in a traditional setting without the online tool, it’s harder to personalize instruction because they’re constrained by time and space. All 25-to-30 students in a class need the teacher’s time and attention at once. A teacher in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom needs to focus on the group, leaving little time to focus on the individual. But by using online learning tools, allows them to focus more on the individual.
LearningOtL: Are there particular students that benefit more from personalized learning than others? Are students with particular personality traits or work ethics better served by online learning?
Dr. Collins: Personalized learning is good for everyone. Online learning may be good for everyone in certain situations, but I don’t feel that there is any one technology or tool that is right for everyone, every time.
We have as diverse of a student body as you would find in any school district. And the reasons why students choose online and blended education are as diverse as that population. But, there are some groups in particular that we see drawn to online learning.
Students who are struggling in their traditional environments and need more time find that the online environment helps them. Students who are ahead and bored in their traditional setting also find that online learning is a good match for them. So, students at both ends of the spectrum – and everyone in between – can benefit from online learning.
Students who are very social may want to supplement with an online experience, but probably wouldn’t want to do all of their learning online. Students who are autistic or who have social challenges may be better off primarily learning online versus learning in a classroom where they are bombarded with social interaction.
Depending on the student and their characteristics, there is a spectrum of online learning that may work well for them. It may be one online class, or a combination of online and traditional education.
LearningOtL: What success metrics are used to determine if an online student is grasping their lessons and materials? How do we know that they’re learning what is being taught?
Dr. Collins: The students have quizzes and assignments as they progress, and then a final exam. So as the student is progressing through the course, it’s the teacher’s job to conduct assessments, watch the grades and the assignments, as well as the computer-based scores to determine whether the student is moving forward successfully, or requires more attention.
If the teacher feels like a student isn’t actually digesting the content but moving through it too quickly, they should schedule a meeting and quiz them. The teacher needs to intervene to ensure that the content is being reviewed and absorbed.
The integrity of the course is very important to us, as educators. When we suspect that a student hasn’t been as diligent in their learning as they should been, our teachers intervene and ensure that the content is actually being learned.
There are course metrics and data available to the instructor so they can compare sections and content areas. The teacher can look to see if a student’s course grade matches up with standardized testing. They can see if their course grade matches their presentation skills. When we see trends in the data, our teachers dig deeper to better understand what the data tells them.
There is no one learning environment that fits every student perfectly. The difference is that, in the online environment, there is more data to show that the student was engaged in the material. We can see how much time they spent on a particular screen. We can see what other online material they digested, and we can track their progress and scores. With that data, we are more empowered to determine how to best use our time and resources to truly personalize the experience for each of our students.
For additional information about online learning, download the white paper, “25 Ideas About Online Learning,” from our Resource Center.
K12 is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. 

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