This is a course through which you may move from start to finish, at your own pace. You will not be held back by other students or forced to go ahead until you are ready. At best, you may meet all the course requirements in less than one semester; at worst, you may not complete the job within that time. How fast you go is up to you.
The work of this course will be divided into 30 units of content, which correspond roughly to a series of home-work assignments and laboratory exercises. These units will come in a definite numerical order, and you must show your mastery of each unit (by passing a “readiness” test or carrying out an experiment) before moving on to the next.
The above paragraphs come from a description
of an Arizona State University introductory course in Psychology offered in the mid-1960s by Fred Keller, a behavioral psychologist trained in contingency reinforcement.
Keller laid out five essential features that a PSI course (see here and here) must have:
1. Mastery of course material,
2. The use of proctors,
4. Stress upon the written word,
5. Use of lectures and demonstrations primarily for motivational purposes, not for transferring information.
Keller wanted very much to end the traditional ways of teaching courses in the university that depended on professors giving thrice-weekly lectures, asking students to absorb information from a textbook, and periodic blue-book tests. He felt that students would learn more content and skills if each student would move at his or her pace, master the content, demonstrate mastery through completing successfully an assessment and then moving on to the next topic in the semester course. Self-pacing, positive reinforcement through passing assessments (which if failed could be taken until passed), and individual help from course assistants was a far better way of teaching and learning in the university.
Within a decade, college and university professors across the nation had adopted Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) as research studies showed time and again that students using PSI for college courses in psychology, physics, chemistry, and other courses outscored students taking the traditional course with lectures, discussion sections, and periodic tests on end-of-semester tests (see here
The high-water mark for this instructional innovation hit in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, few college instructors had heard of PSI, much less used it. Then some interest in PSI emerged.
With access to increasingly affordable high-tech devices and software, advocates of “distance learning” or “e-learning” have looked closely at the components of PSI and seen much to admire and adapt to online courses (see here)
. Beyond that, however, familiar ways of teaching undergraduate introductory courses where students sit tapping away on their laptops in lecture amphitheaters two or three times a week, discussion sections meeting once a week, teacher assistants to answer student questions and guide discussions of the content and blue books remain the order of the day. Even amid the ubiquity of electronic devices on campuses, the regularities in teaching stemming from university structures insofar as scheduling lecture courses for undergraduates, offering few incentives for instructors to innovate, and spending seat time–three hours a week for course credit–persist.
Postmortems of the long-gone innovation called the Keller Plan or PSI have focused on the many incarnations of PSI that differed from what Keller had done at ASU in the mid-1960s in how they adapted the plan and put it into practice, the amount of work that went into creating the study guides, questions, and assessments, and the lack of institutional incentives to use instructional innovations (see here
). Innovations that appeared as shooting stars and eventually fell to earth is a familiar tale among not only in higher education but also in K-12.
Personalized learning in K-12 today
The behaviorist slant embedded in PSI as an individualized, self-pacing learning plan for students to master content and skills is part of the spectrum of various forms of personalization programs running from competency-based programs to ones where students make decisions on what and how they learn (see here). All of these various incarnations of personalized learning have been dubbed innovations and heralded near and far as they have popped up in K-12 schools in urban, suburban, and exurban districts across the nation over the past decade.
For those policymakers and practitioners who want at least reasonably strong evidence of success, however measured, to put “personalized learning” programs into classrooms, well, such evidence is as scarce as taxis on a rainy night. Which is why “personalized learning” is an instance of a zombie school reform, a topic I take up in Part 2 of this post.