What Is Personalized Learning and How Will We Know It Works?

Personalized learning has captured many education reformers’ attention. The new Every Student Succeeds Act supports personalized learning by allowing states to use federal funding for tests in new ways, such as digital adaptive testing. And personalized learning has the backing of tech billionaires, including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, along with other foundations: The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

As federal, state, local, and philanthropic dollars pour into personalized learning, we need a common understanding of what it is (and isn’t) so that we can say something useful about where and how it is happening, and whether it has a positive impact on kids.

So, what exactly is personalized learning?

Loosely defined, personalized learning is a pedagogical approach that allows students to reach college and career readiness standards at their own pace while catering to their unique interests and needs. Departing from the predominant “lock-step progression” model of teaching and learning, it allows students to exercise more agency over their learning pathways and to increase their sense of empowerment, engagement, and learning, thereby improving student outcomes.

As described in the 2016 National Education Technology Plan (NETP), one approach to personalization is to make schedules, content, and instructional practices flexible. In Massachusetts, 54 Innovation Schools in 26 districts employ a variety of educational models to create multiple pathways to learning. Students can choose an arts-focused school that provides access to many different off-site learning opportunities in selected arts or a public service-focused school that offers a choice of career areas and a variety of formats for completing coursework (in-class, online, or blended).

In practice, personalized learning can take many different forms. This is great insofar as developers and reformers can experiment with new approaches and adapt promising personalized learning strategies. However, without a more precise definition, it is impossible to understand whether personalized learning strategies have been implemented as intended. And to know whether personalized learning benefits kids, we need to tie specific practices to observed changes (or the lack thereof) in student outcomes.

Seeking a functional definition, organizations that included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and EDUCAUSE developed a consensus around four key components:

  • Learner profiles that record students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and goals.
  • Personalized learning paths that encourage students to set and manage their individual academic goals.
  • Competency-based progression in which students’ progression toward mastery of clearly defined goals is continually assessed.
  • Flexible learning environments that modify staffing plans, space utilization, time allocation, and technology use to keep students’ needs and interests front and center. 

A recent Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation study added one more ingredient to this working definition: an emphasis on college and career readiness.

This is a useful framework. Yet, many schools committed to personalized learning have implemented only some of these elements, and many others, none. And to understand whether and how personalized learning improves outcomes for kids, we need to distinguish it more clearly from the ever-changing “business as usual” in non-personalized learning schools.

As we look forward, conceptualizing and studying personalized learning in more granular forms could help in this task. Inherently, personalized learning is about tailoring learning opportunities to the learner, taking into account their interests and also their responses to earlier learning experiences. Developing, implementing, and continuously improving personalized learning approaches in schools may mean connecting this approach to more adaptive, dynamic interventions. Adaptive interventions are emerging in such fields as health and prevention science, and intelligent tutoring programs are getting some attention in education.

Such adaptive interventions are conceptualized as sequences of actions that change depending on how recipients respond; they can be simple or complex, as appropriate. A key goal with personalized learning may be figuring out when students can and should have a voice in determining those adaptations—and what the roles of teachers, technology, and college and career readiness standards are in the process.

As reformers and funders continue to support innovation and advocate for personalized learning, studying its implementation and impact to gauge the extent to which they improve outcomes for kids is critical. To avoid duplicating efforts, producing irreconcilable findings, and creating utter confusion about whether personalized learning works, researchers need to partner with reformers, policy makers, and funders early on. By design, studies of personalized learning can then inform future efforts to ensure that all kids succeed in college, careers, and life.

Eleanor S. Fulbeck is a senior researcher at AIR. Her major areas of interest and expertise include educator human capital management, technology and learning, program evaluation, mixed-methods research, and geospatial techniques.

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