Analysis: Teaching, Technology, Transformation — 5 Ways to Talk (and Think) About Personalized Learning

By Beth Rabbitt

This post was originally published by The 74 Million.

It seems that anytime a blog post, op-ed or white paper about personalized learning is published, a mighty rift emerges in the field. On one side, skeptics condemn personalization with great zeal but often show little evidence of understanding what it actually looks like in practice. On the other side, true believers advocate, offering new, bigger, and ever better theories and models without directly addressing underlying fears and concerns.

Somewhere between rejecting personalization as a fad and embracing it as a religion, there are facts, often overlooked, that could form the basis for a more balanced and rigorous conversation. Here are five points to get that conversation going.

1) Demand for personalization comes from a desire to solve real and acute problems of practice.

Despite best intentions, our education institutions simply aren’t great at meeting the complex, individual needs of students. The evidence lies in long recognized and persistent gaps in achievement, opportunity, and engagement, as well as in educator frustrations at the resources they can bring to bear to meet students’ unique strengths and needs based on academic, social-emotional, and cognitive abilities, preferences, motivations, and backgrounds.

The extent to which current instructional and organizational practices affect the ability of schools to flexibly and sustainably address these differences lies at the heart of efforts to personalize. Developing strategies that respond to individual challenges or strengths is an obvious way to improve outcomes. There is a strong body of evidence for individualization, mastery-based learning, and increased student agency and intrinsic motivation. We in the personalized learning field believe we can do better than we currently are, and we are trying to figure out ways to do it. Recognizing this makes it easier to bridge conversations across models, systems, and movements, to focus on how to solve the challenges we face now and in the future.

2) Personalized learning is a collection of intentional practices that are part of a larger, coherent whole.

Personalization is best viewed as a pedagogical aim, not an input or an outcome. Educators make a series of choices in practice — analog and digital — to make learning more personalized. Given the diversity of schools, practitioners, contexts, and students, those choices are going to differ. A confusing aspect of current personalized learning is the emphasis on wholesale school “models” that opaquely bundle all these choices together. Conversations must move away from focusing on models to instead articulate specific teaching and learning problems (lack of engagement, challenges in differentiating to specific student subgroups, etc.) and how educators are using personalized strategies to try to solve them. By clearly identifying the strategies in use, measuring implementation and outcomes, and disseminating learnings, we can push the collective work of personalized learning practitioners forward.

Increasing personalization is just one worthy aim among many problems to solve. “Doing better” can and should mean improving our ability to implement traditional forms of instruction, too. Efforts to personalize should sit alongside other strategies that comprise what makes schooling work for kids — including but not limited to great curriculum, effective use of data, strong direct instruction, social-emotional learning, play, family engagement, etc. As Andy Calkins recently wrote, “Let’s put personalization in its proper place.”

3) There is a deep, underrecognized role being played by on-the-ground practitioners.

Educators have been playing critical roles as leaders of personalization for decades, slowly and rigorously tackling problems in pursuit of change and quality. They have also been partnering with experts to develop new technologies and tools, in many cases even transitioning out of classrooms to lead efforts to develop and provide support from the outside. These voices (as well as those of students experiencing personalized learning) are best qualified to both support the broader mission of this work and offer more authentic challenges to it. We must elevate them above the conversational fray, recognizing and presenting them as the true leaders of personalized efforts.

4) Technology plays a key role in scaling personalized learning implementation and improvement.

Technology is one of several mechanisms educators can use to personalize a student’s experience in school. It is entirely possible to personalize instruction without it; indeed, practitioners have done so for centuries. But seeking to increase personalization simply by trying harder using the same tools as we have in the past, particularly when seeking to do so at a greater scale than we have before, is not a reasonable strategy for systems change. We must bring new resources to bear, and blending technology with the very best of in-person learning is likely our best hope for personalizing learning at a scale we haven’t been able to achieve before. Technology, and technologists, should play a large role in this conversation, alongside educators, leaders, students, and families.

To be specific, the goal of technology is, as Phyllis Lockett argues, to give “teachers more resources to identify students’ needs and [rethink] the way schools are organized.” These digital tools vary dramatically in form, function, and design, ranging from curricula, collaboration, and workflow to communication, assessment, and data management. We are learning more every day about the ways these tools support effective instruction and, in some cases — particularly when poorly designed — undermine progress and increase gaps. We need to engage at the level of which technology, for what problem, in which contexts, and how, if we are to test falsifiable hypotheses about the value of these tools or how blended practices can be effective in concert with them.

5) Education can and must learn from personalization in other fields.

Personalization is rising as an aim in other industries. Education would be wise to learn from their successes and failures as they confront definitional and practical challenges. For example:

  • In finance, we’ve seen the rise of innovations including retirement funds customized to age and mobile banking that gives greater individual flexibility to view, plan, and transact. At the same time, moving more services online widens gaps between those on either side of the digital divide.
  • In medicine, the rise of personalized care initially focused on individualized treatments based on genetic data. Practitioners and patients are moving beyond this pure technical advance to focus on providing greater personal service and choice for patients. Doctors are trying to figure out how to balance investment in data-informed, individual care with evidence-based population health improvements. They are also trying to figure out how to translate new data into actual advances in care and patient behavior.
  • In online news and social media, we’re beginning to see how personalization in news feeds and advertising can confirm existing biases, distort perceptions, and (potentially, allegedly) change the course of democracy.

There is a lot to learn here. Let’s look at those problems that have arisen from greater personalization and identify the lessons learned to leapfrog them. Let’s get smarter through the mistakes and scaled innovations of other sectors.

Personalized learning is gaining momentum; it deserves scrutiny and rigorous implementation and testing. It’s time to engage in lively debate about what we know and don’t know, the values of the theory, the limits and opportunities in practice, and the ways to close the gaps in between.

For more, see:

Beth Rabbitt, Ed.L.D., is CEO of The Learning Accelerator, a national nonprofit seeking to transform K-12 education through blended learning at scale.

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