Education News

Developing Our Understanding Of Personalized Learning

December 22, 2016

This piece, co-written by Barbara Kurshan and Jenny Janovitz, was originally posted by Forbes on December 22, 2016

“Personalized learning” programs and the use of the term “personalized learning” seem to be everywhere in education today. It is understandable why there is such a “big to-do” about it. The achievement gap between students from high- and middle-income families and students from low-income families continues to grow, and students are increasingly diverse-- trends which are detailed in “Making Learning Personal for All: The Growing Diversity in Today’s Classroom,” a report from Digital Promise. As schools and teachers face pressure to increase academic achievement for students who enter classrooms with a wide range of ability levels, school districts are attempting to meet the individual demands of students across a spectrum of academic needs. However, too much of what is being labeled as “personalized learning” in classrooms today completely misses the mark.

The underlying principles of personalized learning are not new to education. Teachers have sought to meet the unique needs of students for decades, stemming from efforts to teach unconventional learners in gifted and special needs classrooms and becoming more widespread for all learners in the 1990s after the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The inclusion of these students in regular education classrooms broke the calcified mold of the one-size-fits-all teaching approach.

Personalized learning in today’s schools essentially amounts to “differentiation” of lessons for students of different skill levels. For example, a teacher might group students by ability in math to provide small-group instruction to remediate or extend targeted concepts. It is important to bear in mind, however, that while differentiation is part of the concept of personalized learning, it is only one component of it. A recent report by iNACOL provides a scan of the literature about how the concept is applied in K-12 education and provides examples of how the multiple ways “personalized learning” is defined underlies its varied implementation.

At a high level, personalized learning involves individualizing the entire learning experience for each learner-- not only adjusting instruction based on students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, but also adjusting instruction based on their interests. It promotes student agency and empowerment by providing students with choices for learning based on how they learn best, what motivates them to learn and their academic goals. Rather than directing the delivery of content, teachers serve as facilitators and coaches who support learning that is driven by students. Pedagogical approaches such as project-based learning, experiential learning and competency-based education are related to personalized learning.

True personalized learning calls for rethinking and redesigning schools with major overhauls to classroom structures, schedules and curricula in addition to substantially changing the instructional approaches of teachers. A few years ago, the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington based trade organization; the ASCD, a nonprofit focused on curriculum development; and the Council of Chief State School Officers came together for a symposium and produced ten “essential elements” and “policy enablers” for personalized learning. Their work provides a framework for the systemic overhaul of the PreK-12 education system.

While personalized learning must be enabled by classroom conditions and augmented by teacher support, technology can help customize student learning.There are many edtech products that support the broader definition of personalized learning. (For an overview of some of these products, see this article and this article.) Dr. Ryan Baker, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, researches how students use and learn from educational games, intelligent tutors, and other kinds of educational software. Dr. Baker believes that “Several platforms get one big thing apiece right in terms of personalization, whether it's Carnegie Learning's ability to support students in the internal steps of math problems they're struggling with, ALEKS's ability to figure out what prerequisite skills a student is missing, or the ability of the ASSISTments platform to distill student performance into meaningful reports for teachers that they can use to change their classroom practice. However, no one platform has put it all together yet.”

The edtech market is crowded with companies who claim to be offering personalized learning products and services. Several of these companies, however, use a definition of personalized learning that does not encompass the full meaning of the term. For example, a company that misuses the term personalized learning may develop a software product that merely provides students with different texts to read based on their comprehension and decoding skills.

We must remember that personalized learning is served by-- not defined by-- technological tools. The biggest risk of not embracing personalized learning in its most comprehensive form is that the movement could lose momentum and fizzle out as its benefits are not realized and as concerns about student data privacy continue to receive attention. “Given the long history of ineffective fads and flavors-of-the-month in education, a level of healthy skepticism regarding new methods (such as personalized learning) is appropriate,” says Matthew Mugo Fields, President of Redbird Advanced Learning and Founder of

Those who work in the field of edtech, including myself, have long touted edtech products and services as holding the promise to transform teaching and learning at scale. Personalized learning offers this opportunity. I challenge edtech entrepreneurs to use a broader perspective of personalized learning and to think innovatively about how to design solutions that deepen our capacity to genuinely individualize the learning experience for each student.

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