Advancing personalized learning with purpose


Nov 19, 2015

At last week’s iNACOL Symposium, the conference halls were abuzz about the promise of personalized learning. In the same week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a report in partnership with RAND profiling promising academic results across schools pursuing a range of personalized approaches over the past two to three years. These conversations and findings mark an encouraging departure from our industrial model of education. Champions of personalized learning are rejecting the century old premise that students ought to experience school on the basis of standardized curriculum, age cohorts, grade levels, and seat time. And increasingly, there’s data to support this case.

The term personalized learning, however, seems to be taking on a life of its own. Although the popularity of the term signals a growing willingness to rethink school, we should be wary of treating personalized learning as the latest reform concept in which to invest all of our hopes and dreams for a better education system. Otherwise, personalized learning risks being cast as a silver bullet; and as an end in and of itself, rather than a means to improving outcomes for all students. To avoid this, we need to be relentlessly precise about the outcomes that we think a personalized approach should accomplish and the range of student supports—including but also far beyond software tools—vital to ensuring that these endeavors succeed.

What we measure will fundamentally drive the system and school designs that we implement. Many schools are turning to a range of practices, such as creating learner profiles or flexible learning pathways that afford students choice, that stand to personalize learning. But implementing the inputs that we associate with personalized learning is not enough; we need to measure our progress in a manner that actually refocuses our outcomes at the individual student, rather than at the cohort level. As I’ve written about before, so long as our accountability systems focus on the singular measure of once-yearly high stakes tests, we’re unlikely to motivate most schools to truly personalize learning in a manner that optimizes for individual student mastery. Indeed, it’s not surprising that many of the schools surveyed in the recent RAND study reported difficulty implementing competency-based pathways along which students advance upon mastery. All of these schools remain beholden to our traditional accountability system.

In other words, oftentimes schools may be implementing practices associated with personalized learning but measuring and reporting outcomes grounded in the old factory-based model that personalized learning is in fact designed to dismantle. If we truly are aiming to encourage personalized learning at scale, recent buy-in to adopting personalized learning inputs is only half the battle. The more complicated matter that will make or break personalized learning is what constitutes individual student success and how we measure it in a reliable and equitable manner.

Nailing these metrics and accountability systems will be especially vital if we want personalized learning to provide an antidote to chronic achievement gaps. To tackle these gaps, truly personalized models will likely need to do a lot more than deliver curriculum and assessment in new, more flexible, and data-driven ways. In our most recent paper, The educator’s dilemma: How and when schools should embrace poverty relief, we posit that particularly to support low-income students, schools likely need to integrate services that extend far beyond academics or technologies that support learning. Efforts to close gaps will depend on additional services that ensure that students are ready and able to learn, such as health and vision care, after-school supports, or additional mentoring and tutoring. If we conceive of personalized learning models too narrowly in terms of their instructional approaches, we risk neglecting the non-academic scaffolds and supports that many students require in order to be ready to learn in the first place.

Personalized learning—as a concept—encompasses an intricate alignment of models, goals, and student supports that the field is very much still trying to figure out. We should celebrate the rise of enthusiasm and proof points in support of this new concept. But each time we invoke it, let’s bear in mind that personalizing learning is a means, not an ends. Defining those ends clearly will make or break how personalized learning shapes students’ futures in the long run.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.