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Edtech definitions every teacher should know: Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of our edtech terminology post — where we hope to give you a relatively simple roadmap to help navigate the thickets of education technology buzzwords and phrases that tend to appear in discussions and debates. Last time I focused on more purely tech phrases, such as “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning”, today I will zero in on a few education-based phrases that are often conflated or interchanged leading to a lack of clarity.

Deep Learning vs. Deep Learning

Last time I discussed machine learning vs. artificial intelligence; a phrase that has cropped up as an addition to those discussions and topics is “deep learning”. Confusingly, this is also a phrase bandied about in education circles, and unfortunately for us edtech proponents, they mean quite different things.

Deep learning (Tech): Where machine learning is a part of the broader umbrella of artificial intelligence, deep learning is in turn a function or derivative of machine learning. Unsurprisingly, Google is at the commercial forefront of deep learning, with a team they call “Google Brain”. The clue is in the name: deep learning leverages the large neural networks now possible with increased computing power, to develop sophisticated algorithms that take machine learning to a more productive and notionally more organic level.

Deep learning machines have the ability to learn and discover their own features, as well as train themselves — a function of what most scientists working in the field refer to as hierarchical feature learning. “Deep” here refers to how “deep” the algorithms can go in terms of mapping and labeling “higher” features and concepts from “lower” ones.

Best Online Definition - “Deep Learning” book by Ian Goodfellow and Yoshua Bengio and Aaron Courville: “The hierarchy of concepts allows the computer to learn complicated concepts by building them out of simpler ones. If we draw a graph showing how these concepts are built on top of each other, the graph is deep, with many layers. For this reason, we call this approach to AI deep learning.”

Deep(er) Learning (Ed): The Deep(er) Learning concept is a reaction to the pressure and consequences of standardized testing. As Ron Berger, chief academic officer at Expeditionary Learning says, “The push in [education] has been so deeply around accountability based on high-stakes assessments that educators have become more and more fearful that the kind of going deeper has not been celebrated and prioritized.” According to Berger and other educational reform advocates, deeper learning yields a number of academic skill-sets that enable students to better learn from, adapt to, resolve and thrive in a changing or challenging environment.

Many pedagogues decry the buzzword because it describes what all dedicated teachers have, and always will, aim for as an educational goal — and is nothing new. In that sense the phrase is perhaps more useful when describing a method, rather than an outcome — Deeper Instruction, as some have suggested — we’ll explore this fascinating concept in future posts.

Best Online Definition - Hewlett Foundation: “The six Deeper Learning competencies: master core academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, communicate effectively, work collaboratively, learn how to learn, develop academic mindsets.”

Differentiated Learning vs Personalized Learning vs. Individualized Learning

Oh Boy! Not only are these three phrases relative behemoths of the current education lexicon, at a distance they mean almost the same thing: hence the many instances they tend to be interchanged, misused and hence misunderstood, in an educational context. Lay readers may feel we are splitting hairs here, however because the phrases do in fact denote different teaching methods, all be they nuanced, teachers need to know the difference.

Differentiated Learning: This way of learning (and teaching) acknowledges that everyone learns differently. Naturally there are broad, as well as more narrow, categories into which students can be cast with regard to how they learn, but the ambition of differentiated learning is to, as much as possible, manipulate classroom inputs, pace, assessment rubrics, approaches, groupings, resources and environments (per student) to achieve the best results. Importantly, differentiated learning does not denote any changes in curriculum. The entire class is learning the same thing, yet students reach those outcomes in different ways.

Best Online Definition - Carol Ann Tomlinson: “Ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student's readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.”

Individualized Learning: Stay with me here: Individualized learning is a tool within the Differentiated learning toolbox. However, definitions are not agreed upon. Some hold that individualized learning refers exclusively to the pace of instruction, while others frame differentiated instruction as a teacher’s ability or license to teach groups within a class differently, individualized instruction defines teaching 1-on-1. On balance I have found more references to the definition pertaining to pace.

Best Online Definition - Dale BasyeM - “Instruction calibrated to meet the unique pace of various students is known as individualized learning. If differentiation is the ‘how’ then individualization is the ‘when’.”

Personalized Learning: Probably the most commonly used term, it is most often used as an umbrella phrase that encompasses instruction that is individualized and differentiated. In some source material however personalized learning is distinguished from the other two, by allowing students to have far greater say not only in how and when they study — but indeed what. Personalized learning in this context is then perhaps the most flexible of all three styles, and describes a truly modern teacher-student relationship that is highly collaborative.

Best Online Definition - Glossary of Educational Reform: “The term personalized learning, or personalization, refers to a diverse variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students.”


We’ve examined some truly interesting concepts today, and I am now curious as to how technology is enabling and empowering them. Look out for future blogs where we will further explore these innovative instruction methods through the lens of technology.

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