personalized learning

The underestimated resource for personalized learning (and how to get more of it)


May 7, 2019

When schools think about incorporating personalized learning, it may seem intuitive to consider resources like specific technologies or professional development plans. But there’s another critical resource that too often gets discounted but is hiding in plain sight: time.

Although schools may manage to add more time on the margins with a “just do more” mindset, personalizing learning at scale will require a massive rethinking of how schools use time, alongside pursuing new strategies that can save time. Put simply, traditional systems aiming to adopt new approaches to teaching and learning but not willing to do away with legacy structures (e.g. traditional staffing arrangements, instructional delivery, and scheduling) could have all the best intentions in the world, but will inevitably run up against real time crunches.

3 ways to find time for personalized learning

1. Rethink scheduling

In traditional systems, scheduling can become the tail that wags the dog. Strict course schedules in turn risk hamstringing instructional innovations in the name of logistical coherence. To overcome this trap, schools should seek out new processes for building schedules and tools that can help sort out where students and teachers should spend their time. For example, the startup abl launched a tool to help schools make thorny scheduling tradeoffs in a far more streamlined manner than the ‘spreadsheets and elbow grease’ models that many schools still use to coordinate schedules.

2. Streamline administrative tasks

Besides just delivering content, technology can also serve to streamline administrative tasks that often fall to teachers. For example, everything from taking attendance to rostering students can take up precious educator time. Tools like Clever have helped alleviate some of these burdens. Ultimately, however, the ability to meaningfully automate tasks will also depend on tools working in concert with one another. This requires that school systems double down on adopting technology tools that can streamline educator administrative tasks and also demand interoperability among various tools.

3. Consider blended learning as a tool to rethink teacher time

Blended learning can help schools to reorganize how they use time in meaningful ways. By shifting some content delivery online, some blended-learning models can allow teachers to reconsider how best to spend face-to-face time in the classroom—perhaps allowing teachers to deliver more small-group or one-on-one instruction, perhaps allowing them to lead students in projects, or even allowing them to grade individual performance assessments to provide students with meaningful feedback. It’s worth noting that in some circumstances the opposite is proving true: blended approaches can cost teachers more time if the technology isn’t living up to expectations or if classrooms haven’t been redesigned to absorb the efficiencies that technology could offer. In particular, some teachers opt to create blended materials themselves, which can increase costs up front. But if a school system is short on time or staff, it should design blended approaches in ways that leverage software to free up–rather than burden–teacher time, so that teachers can support students in more targeted ways.

Without rethinking time, well-intentioned efforts to personalize learning could mean piling new tools and strategies onto classrooms, with the efforts collapsing under their own weight. Schools aiming to personalize learning will have to start negotiating tradeoffs not just regarding how students spend their time, but how the system as a whole spends its time. Put differently, to make personalized approaches feasible in the long run schools will have to pursue bold structural shifts that facilitate and make space for promising instructional shifts. How schools use—or abuse—time may sit at the fulcrum of those shifts.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks"