Where’s the person in personalized learning?


Oct 28, 2014

Have you been hearing about ‘personalizing’ education a lot lately? You’re probably not alone.

Not only has the term been on the rise for a few decades now, but countless conferences, articles, and products are now dedicated to considering and celebrating the possibility of personalizing education. Like any buzzword, as it becomes more widespread, what people mean exactly by “personalized” becomes increasingly broad and muddled. Do we think that instruction can and ought to be personalized to students’ needs and strengths? Personalized to students’ interests or passions? Personalized to the pace at which individual students learn best? All of the above? In equal parts?

At the Christensen Institute, first and foremost we think about personalization as a possible byproduct of the rapid growth of online learning. We predict that 50 percent of all high school courses will be online in some form or fashion by 2019. In line with this prediction, we are witnessing the rapid growth of blended learning models—that is, instructional models inside brick-and-mortar schools in which some academic content is delivered online, in addition to face-to-face instruction. What does this have to do with personalization? At its best, online content delivery can allow students to learn at their own pace, and in some cases, can tailor a unique pathway that adapts to their needs. Of equal importance, these online applications can free up time for adults in the classroom or school building to play roles beyond those of traditional direct instruction—as a tutor, mentor, coach, etc.—to drive students’ learning. The hope, then, is that online content delivery will not only personalize instruction to students’ needs and pace, but also allow for face-to-face interventions that provide individual guidance and support.

There is still plenty of room for the edtech market that is driving blended-learning models to evolve to reach this vision of personalized pace and path. No matter how sophisticated our adaptive learning algorithms and software become, however, blending online and face-to-face instruction does not directly address the other ways in which the field seems to conceive of “personalized” learning. Specifically, how does the current edtech market help align instruction with students’ particular interests, passions, and connections to their communities? How might edtech assist in unearthing those interests and forging those connections in the first place? I worry that this is becoming a blind spot in the ever-louder call for personalized learning. Are we nurturing personhood—in all its complexity—inside so-called personalized learning models? Or as Clayton Christensen has written about in How Will You Measure Your Life, are schools helping students to understand what motivates and moves them?

The short answer is: we don’t know. We rarely measure or document these aspects of schooling. I assume that numerous efforts to personalize around students’ interests and passions are happening informally in schools—through teachers who find out what their students care about and then find face-to-face opportunities to weave these interests into instruction. Certainly blended-learning schools that are integrating project-based learning—as part of the face-to-face component of blended delivery models—may also be providing space for interest-based explorations. Some online learning programs boast modest interest-based curriculum offerings. And there are certainly a handful of technology tools that are positioned to serve this need. Platforms like Mytonomy, Icouldbe, CareerVillage, Nepris, Educurious, and UnitedTeach are all trying to connect students to information about careers and real-world applications of academic content, and connect students to adults who can lend advice and expertise to these pursuits.

These efforts—to engage students in real world settings, to surface what they care about, and to connect students with peers and adults who share those interests—however, lack the attention and investment that online content delivery tools currently are receiving. This may be because online learning programs that deliver content lend themselves to scale more obviously than do tools that surface and engage students’ passions, because online learning is being swapped in for traditional curriculum products. Or it may be a matter of sequencing: perhaps administrators and policymakers want to see that edtech can nail core academic jobs first and then turn to trying to help students unearth and nurture their passions and grow their networks. Alternatively, this may all turn on the age-old debate between constructivists and behavioralists—the latter of which worry that interest-based instruction stands to dilute rigor and remain less interested in tools that help students discover and explore what they care about.

None of this is to say that we ought to abandon efforts to personalize path and pace for indulging students’ every whim. Rather, I would more humbly offer that we need to think about the person—the little, not-yet-fully-formed human being—at the heart of personalized learning. To drive personalization at scale, edtech tools dedicated to finding out who students are and what they care about—and providing them with tools to answer those questions for themselves and to connect to resources that can help them along the way—should remain a key part of the equation.

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.