Special Report
School & District Management

What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity

By Sean Cavanagh — October 20, 2014 9 min read

In the diverse and ever-changing world of educational technology, the term “personalized learning” seems to be everywhere, though there is not yet a shared understanding of what it means.

Many school officials, and companies scrambling to do business with them, use that omnipresent phrase to refer to efforts to tailor lessons to students of different ability levels—an appealing concept, given the pressures schools face to raise the achievement of students coming to academic topics from very different starting points.

Over the past few years, a number of education and technology organizations have sought to move beyond generalities to forge a clearer definition of what personalized learning really means—in the hope that the guidance will provide more specific and useful information to the K-12 community.

As it stands, districts see the potential in personalized learning to meet the demands of a student population that has grown more diverse, with a wide range of academic and language needs. And technology, in the view of many, offers a powerful tool for achieving that goal. They point to the myriad digital devices, software, and learning platforms offering educators a once-unimaginable array of options for tailoring lessons to students’ needs—and for collecting data on each student’s individual performance.

Yet many obstacles persist. School leaders are struggling to strike a balance between safeguarding sensitive student data and being able to collect and use such data to individualize learning. Districts are also facing challenges in making their personalized learning strategies work, and in determining how to evaluate the true impact of those strategies on student learning.

The challenge for schools is to bring those elements together in a holistic way, one that creates more opportunities for students, said Andrew Calkins, the deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a grant competition that encourages personalized learning, among other goals.

“The thing to understand about personalized learning is that it describes a methodology, rather than just a set of goals,” said Mr. Calkins, whose nonprofit organization, EDUCAUSE, manages the competition. EDUCAUSE, which promotes the use of technology to improve education, also has worked to create a clearer definition of what personalized learning means.

A core piece of that definition, in Mr. Calkins’ view, is that “the default perspective is the student’s—not the curriculum, or the teacher,” and that schools need to adjust to accommodate not only students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their interests, and what motivates them to succeed.

Yet some say that too much of what is being labeled “personalized learning” in classrooms today misses the mark.

Shaping the Concept

Many technology-based approaches to personalized learning amount to nothing more than tailoring or personalizing the reading of texts to students of different abilities—rather than personalizing a mix of activities that give students a richer and more meaningful educational experience, said Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan who has studied and developed digital education tools.

“Everybody’s saying they’re doing it—but we have to go one level deeper when we say ‘personalized learning,’” Mr. Soloway said. If schools and technology advocates don’t set higher standards for what they mean, the movement “will not be sustainable,” he predicted. “It will peter out.”

The allure of personalized learning is evident in the way that both the education community, and companies trying to do business in schools, shape the term to suit their needs.

A perusal of the sessions at the 2014 International Society for Technology in Education conference, the biggest ed-tech gathering in the country, held in June, provides a glimpse of personalized learning’s many permutations.

One session offered school administrators insights on “personalized digital toolboxes.” Another advised audiences on how to use information technology to enable “personalized connected learning.”

There was an event on “systemic adoption of personalized learning,” and “self-sustaining personalized learning.” There were sessions on personalized learning for entire districts, for kindergartners and 1st graders, for struggling students, and for new teachers.

One session said that personalized learning is tied to a “culture shift” within schools, while another described the “perfect storm of personalized learning.”

But the prevailing enthusiasm for personalized learning has obscured a fundamental question: How should it be defined?

Personalizing learning, in some respects, is an age-old concept. For generations, teachers have sought to craft instruction to meet individual student needs—a manageable challenge when working with a relatively small group, but much more difficult for a class of 20 to 30 students.

Personalized learning in today’s schools essentially amounts to the “differentiation” of lessons for students of different skill levels, or efforts to help students move at their own pace, said Susan D. Patrick, the executive director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Vienna, Va.

But she added that personalized learning must also promote “student agency"—basically, giving students more power through either digital tools or other means, accounting for how they learn best, what motivates them, and their academic goals. The most effective digital tools support that purpose, she said.

“Technology can help provide students with more choices on how they’re going to learn a lesson,” Ms. Patrick said. "[It] empowers teachers in personalizing learning” and “empowers students through their own exercise of choice.”

Essential Elements

Four years ago, a trio of organizations—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 10 “essential elements” and “policy enablers” for personalized learning.

Their definition emphasizes project-based learning, and more flexibility for students to set their learning paths, among other goals. An overwhelming majority of the symposium’s attendees said technology played a key role in personalized learning; the essential elements also emphasized the importance of providing equal access to technology.

This year, in an effort to provide clearer direction for K-12 officials and others, iNACOL, along with a group of philanthropies, nonprofits, and technology advocacy organizations, created a “working definition of personalized learning.”

That definition, crafted by organizations that included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and EDUCAUSE, rests on four pillars. (Education Week receives support from the Gates Foundation for its coverage of college- and career-ready standards.) Each student should have a “learner profile,” or a record documenting his or her academic strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and goals; students should have personal learning paths that encourage them to set and manage their individual academic goals; students should follow a “competency-based progression” through topics; and their learning environments—in most cases, schools—should be flexible and structured in a way to support their goals. (See graphic.)

Those pillars have been integrated into the request for proposals crafted by the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a grant program created in 2010 that pays for technology-based efforts in schools that promote preparation for, and completion of, postsecondary education.

Building Student Ownership

True personalized learning calls for a “rethinking and redesign” of schools, which could require them to overhaul classroom structures and schedules, curricula, and the instructional approaches of teachers, Mr. Calkins of EDUCAUSE argued. For instance, in an effective personalized learning model, teachers’ roles are more like those of coaches or facilitators than “content providers,” he said.

Many of the projects financed through the learning-challenges grants aspire to that goal, though there’s certainly room for schools to integrate personalized approaches more slowly, he said.

In Wisconsin, the Kettle Moraine school system‘s foray into personalized learning has been ambitious, but also deliberate.

The 4,000-student district, located in the suburbs west of Milwaukee, has been a high-performing system for years. But district leaders became concerned that students were more focused on completing academic tasks than on setting their own learning goals, recalled Theresa Ewald, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

“We were looking at ways of transferring the ownership of learning from teachers to students,” Ms. Ewald said.

In 2005, the school board challenged the district’s administration to “transform the educational delivery system” to better meet students’ needs. The district eventually put personalized learning at the heart of that change.

Today, personalized learning comes in many forms in Kettle Moraine. The district has created interdisciplinary pathways for students, in areas such as advanced manufacturing, and it has given individual teachers greater flexibility to use lessons and digital tools as they see fit to promote student learning.

Yet, unlike many districts that have put personalized learning programs in place, Kettle Moraine decided not to invest heavily in digital devices to build a 1-to-1 computing environment. Instead, it relies on a bring-your-own-device program, and it has used Google systems for distributing assignments, scheduling, and communication between staff and students. In most cases, technology is used to support personalized learning, though it is not always the essential piece, district officials emphasized.

As its academic strategies have drawn attention, Kettle Moraine has been flooded with inquiries from vendors touting their own brands of personalized learning. Many of them fall short, either because they try to do too much or cost too much, Ms. Ewald said. Others focus primarily on customizing lessons to students’ ability levels—which Ms. Ewald agrees is a part of personalized learning—but they don’t offer a diversity of approaches for how a student experiences a topic, such as by engaging with it visually versus reading about it.

Ultimately, those tools have to mesh with the work of classroom teachers, who are making their own judgments about what’s working in their classes, Ms. Ewald said.

“Nothing replaces the teacher, and [a] teacher’s ability to know a student and what they need,” she said. “You can’t get that from a piece of software.”

Coverage of personalized learning and systems leadership in Education Week and its special reports is supported in part by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as ‘Personalized Learning’ Eludes Easy Definitions

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