Ace Parsi co-authored this blog post.

Innovation isn’t an outcome; it’s a process. How we approach that process will inevitably influence our outcomes.

Bearing this in mind, one of the primary challenges facing a number of efforts around education innovation—including a number of personalized learning initiatives—is that they are built upon simplified models and assumptions.

The risk of oversimplifying personalized learning on the front end is that we may fail to successfully leverage what works, for which students, in specific circumstances; especially in light of messy human relationships, political dynamics, and histories of discrimination. If innovators don’t consider the needs of traditionally disadvantaged populations at the outset, they will be left to retrofit these needs on the back end. This often makes efforts tedious, costly, and frustrating for both the disadvantaged students and those working to serve them.

Failing to address complexities upfront may be the undoing of a number of well-intentioned education innovations, including personalized learning.

Why design matters
One example of this retrofitting is the integration of technology in learning. As a leading disability rights advocate and Executive Director of the Robert Louis Stevenson School and the Purnell School, Bob Cunningham has said that technology is not just a tool or accommodation like a wheelchair—it can actually represent a different learning environment. “As with any education environment, your ability to promote your students’ success within it will depend, in large part, on your thorough understanding of the environment itself and of how each students’ interests, strengths and challenges will interact with that environment,” Cunningham said. “We have a tremendous opportunity when creating these new environments. We don’t have to just modify what already exists or accommodate for difference. We can actually plan for diverse students in these contexts as we are designing them.”

Put differently, designing technology-rich models with different students in mind is critical. If you are an English language learner, a student who has experienced trauma, or even have executive functioning issues and your district is implementing a model that hasn’t accounted for cultural sensitivity, holistic supports or training for educators to help students organize their learning, then opportunity gaps for you may very well increase rather than decrease.

Starting with the end in mind
What if we were to think about innovation differently, starting, rather than ending, with an equity lens? Rather than creating a reactionary taskforce once an initiative has already rolled out, we might create dedicated affinity groups of marginalized populations, be proactive in identifying the weaknesses in our models and create thinking communities and partnerships to grapple with those challenges.

An equity-based design framework is one approach to achieving this goal, ensuring program leaders and policy makers can gather information and empathize with a variety of stakeholders’ needs. Based on deep analysis of putting this approach to work in the Colorado SpaceLab, and when implemented well, a deliberate design framework can have positive impacts not only for traditionally disadvantaged groups, but their peers as well.

SpaceLab’s process to achieving this goal and efforts at the outset–hinged on empathizing with disadvantaged groups’ experiences and then using that empathy to effectively define the problem and design solutions–is a key to success.

4 questions to help ensure equity in design
Answers to a few questions can help anchor the design process in equity:

  • Vision. Is the vision guiding an initiative inclusive and does it incorporate all students? How could an outsider or a new team member ascertain these characteristics?
  • Engagement. Who are the stakeholders who have been invited into the conversations, or as Hamilton might say, the room where it happens? Do those stakeholders reflect the
    diversity of the community being served?
  • Difficult Conversations. How have you been explicit about the mindsets of different actors in the system? Have you set up a space to talk about addressing underlying biases related to race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status?
  • Action-Reaction. How have you set up a system to act on what you’ve learned? What are the protocols your team and program use to modify their practice?

If innovation efforts are not anchored in equity and inclusion at the forefront of their work, personalized models will replicate the results of the traditional system. If design-thinking is really going to work to advance equity, innovators will need to wrestle with these questions on the front end. From there, by creating a system that meets the needs of students at the margins, we can more effectively meet the needs of all students.

Ace Parsi is the Personalized Learning Partnership Manager at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) where he works to ensure students with disabilities fully benefit from initiatives aiming to personalize learning for all students.


  • Julia Freeland Fisher
    Julia Freeland Fisher

    Julia Freeland Fisher leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research.