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Online Edge

Personalized Online Learning

Taking what you already do and putting it online doesn’t make it learning.

During his presentation on “Effective Leadership in an Era of Disruptive Innovation” at the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Washington, D.C., in June, Scott McLeod of Iowa State University (and blogger at made a statement that was quickly captured in Tweets by many of those in attendance. “We’re facing a disruptive innovation,” Scott said. “But it’s not online learning; it’s personalized learning.”

At a moment when more and more schools are rushing to move curriculum and coursework online, those words are important ones to understand. While it may seem that digitizing the delivery of work and the interactions between teacher and student represents a big shift from the past, simply doing online what you’ve been doing in the classroom isn’t much of a shift at all when compared to the true potentials of networked learning on the Web. In the communities and connections that we create today, we’re following our own passions, creating our own curriculum, setting our own pace for learning and assessing it ourselves.

Building Fire

One of my favorite examples of how kids are constructing their own learning was shared by a parent I met in Victoria, British Columbia. Her 12-year-old son had a yen for survival skills but could not, no matter how hard he tried, start a fire using a bow drill, a low-tech step-up from rubbing two sticks together. Instead of the more traditional methods to get some expert help with his technique, however, this “student” decided to create a three-and-a-half-minute video showing his unsuccessful technique and post it to YouTube asking for comments that might help him. (You can watch it at

The video is striking on a number of levels: He never identifies himself (you only see his grass-stained feet and hands in the video), he speaks directly to his audience, and he adds just enough production to entice people to respond—which is what they did. The first ten responses in the comment thread are from other “bushcrafters” who are lending their experience and ideas in an effort to provide a better technique. “Wind your spindle on the outside,” says HedgeHogLeatherworks, while dofair adds, “Its easyier [sic] if you use your knee to hold the wood.” The feedback is specific, based on experience, and encouraging. There is a real sense of community in the responses.

We're following our own passions, creating our own curriculum, setting our own pace for learning and assessing it ourselves.

But the compelling questions to me, however, are more about the “network literacies” that he displays. For instance, given there are 4.5 viewing years of video being uploaded to YouTube each day, how did he know that someone with an answer would see his video and respond? Why do a video and not simply write a blog post? And what about the comfort he displays while not knowing? There is a wisdom in his process, one that, not surprisingly, based on the feedback he received, made him able to spark a fire the next time he tried.

Finding, Not Getting Answers

This is the essence of learning online today—the ability to find answers to our own questions using a variety of social media that connect like-minded, passionate learners in global communities of practice. To fully prepare our kids for that type of classroom (which is obviously already here), we have to think deeply about what the affordances of these technologies really are. It’s not just about publishing.

Online learning has to be more than taking the paper texts and paper assignments and transferring them to a blog or a wiki or some other content management system. It has to be more than every student covering the same material at the same time at the same pace. If we truly want to move learning online, it has to be about helping kids find their own paths, making their own connections, and building their own artifacts in the context of whatever it is they love to learn. And if we don’t show them how to take advantage of that potential, we’re not modeling “effective leadership” at all.

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at