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A Pandemic Call for Personalized Education

Editor's Note:

Edushift would like to thank Education Consultant Sue Neilson and Learning Commons Specialist Patricia Sutherland for their contributions in the production of this article.

neilsonsue26@gmail.com Sue Neilson@sue_neilson

pasuther@hotmail.com Patricia Sutherland@pasuther


These are tumultuous times. Who, at the start of the 2019-20 school year, could have anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic and its horrific impact on local communities and global economies? Yet, as we watch with a sense of helplessness while our schools close for an undetermined period of time, are we also trying to connect the dots? What does this mean for the immediate and longer term future of education? Can we leverage this moment to gain greater insight to advance the necessary transformation to personalized educational systems?

Prior to the pandemic, Edushift used the example of the newly mandated e-learning credits in the Province of Ontario to explore how we can all use

The Opportunity of Recognizing Opportunities to proactively advance system transformation. The task at hand involves acknowledging that the move to mandatory e-learning isn’t as much about e-learning, per se, as it is about addressing student needs in relation to a number of other interconnected and evolving factors.


We can now see, from this pandemic requiring schools to close, an expectation for educators to increase their use of e-learning/online learning and/or related platforms. However, these expectations generally fail to address the context in which students learn and opportunity available to systematically practice personalization.

Unless managed strategically, as a process, our industrial era education systems will continue to interpret e-learning/online learning as a potential program solution to maintain existing education service structures. The outcome, as we are witnessing, is a legitimate response from educators that "we can't just flip a switch".


In his article Is Online Learning the Answer for the Coronavirus Closed Schools? Tom Whitby offers a good overview of the viability issues associated with this expectation for transition. And in the Ontario context, the coronavirus impact comes at a time when there is already considerable debate about what e-learning actually means, and the educational and operational issues associated with its implementation as a mandatory credit requirement.


What We Are Trying to Do - Together

In their article Sense of Irony or Perfect Timing: Examining the Research Supporting Proposed e-Learning Changes in Ontario , Michael K. Barbour and Randy LaBonte make the important distinction that “researchers are constantly asked does-e-learning work, whereas the better question is under what conditions can e-learning work?” After all, what “works for one student or one group of students may not work for others – regardless of setting or context. The real challenge for any educational program is how to design, deliver, and support learning opportunities in a way that can be effective for each student, which will look different for various populations of students.”

The article also offers the following diagram to outline the inter-relationship that community, family and school play to help students to maximize full engagement in their learning, regardless of the specific educational setting being used.




Borup, Graham, & Archambault, 2019


While every student has certain individual characteristics, there are existing supports available to maximize affective, behavioral and cognitive engagement. Accordingly, the goal of e-learning/online learning needs to be seen as providing the necessary supports to account for “the difference between what the student already possesses and is able to gain from their existing community AND the level of engagement that is needed for the student to be successful.” In essence, these are different learning environment that educators “can leverage to support and engage students – just as a makerspace, a library, a metal or wood shop, or any other place where teachers can structure and manage learning opportunities.” This distinction is critical because, if we continue to interpret online settings as a means for students to simply participate just they would in a traditional classroom, we will miss this opportunity to learn how to systematically provide the conditions and supports that students need to be successful.


Process Development Needs a Foundation to Work From

Effective personalized education systems treat the development of learning settings as a longitudinal process through a strengths-based focus driven by student agency. Specific to e-learning/online learning, research has demonstrated the need to account for student characteristics, technology, supports and learning environment.


Factors that Contribute to E-Learning/Online Learning Success


Edushift contributor Patricia Sutherland, 2020


With each of these four interconnected elements are a variety of activities that classroom, school and district level systems can use and continually adapt through information and evidence of what works and what doesn’t for specific students under specific conditions. The technology quadrant, for example, is systematically supported by an understanding and adjusted application of the technological requirements and student access to these requirements as they relate to the educational setting being considered and/or used. The student characteristics quadrant seeks to assist the personal capacity of students to be curious and academically self-regulate before venturing full-scale into e-learning/online learning platforms. The learning environment quadrant presents an opportunity for educators to move beyond traditional subject area structures to embrace inquiry through competency and project-based learning and effective curriculum design and evaluation across multiple subject areas. A commitment to understanding and responding to student needs through the necessary technological, content and skills supports is equally important as the fourth interconnected quadrant.

On first inspection, educators can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed to this approach with a seemingly endless number of potential issues “to be resolved”. However, it is important to remember that the integration of these elements represents a longitudinal process - it is never ending. The value proposition involves systematic improvements that occur by promoting student and staff self-reflection through the continual increase and availability of information, perspectives and sharing. This is a longitudinal process that moves beyond ubiquitous testing by legitimizing and applying student agency.


Where and How to Start

Classroom, school and district level systems need to proceed, not from a perspective of mere compliance to their industrial era structures, but from informed action that accounts for the specific settings and supports that individual students need to thrive. It is reasonable to suggest that these favorable settings and supports are more firmly in place for some students than for others. However, academic achievement indicators alone are of limited value in this respect because some students succeed academically at school despite being disengaged at school.

As a starting point, classroom, school and district level systems need information to benchmark student perspectives about the conditions they feel are necessary to engage their learning. What kind of tool could educational system leaders use with students to receive this information and, through an inquiry approach, apply it in a meaningful way to support the development of e-learning, online learning and remote learning etc. processes? Is there something that could be developed by our educational systems to create a starting point for discussion; to help each student understand what could be worked on through self-growth to prepare for e-learning?

Edushift is endorsing the development of tools to receive input from students first and staff second. With the pandemic response to technology based settings, educational systems have a potential foundation from which to initiate and build upon. The tools would be less about providing answers as about informing questions that can be used to develop continual cycles of personalized support. Educational leaders might find themselves asking questions such as:

  • Why are certain students succeeding more than others with these settings?

  • Are there opportunities to coordinate student groups with similar readiness needs?

  • What can we learn from students in other jurisdictions already using these settings?

  • Are there student wellness issues that needs to be addressed?

  • Are there curricular connections that could be made with student readiness plans?

Understanding and responding to the capacity of students, as individuals, to embrace and succeed with these pandemic induced learning settings will be essential to this process work. We know that a number of students will require help to improve their capacity for a successful outcome. Who are these students and what do they believe are their affective, behavioral and cognitive needs?


We will come through these challenging times. Of that, there is no doubt. What remains to be seen is whether we can seize this moment to learn and grow together.




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