What Is Personalized Learning?

Is it going to transform public schools, finally bringing education into the age of digitally driven personalization embodied by companies such as Amazon and Netflix? Or is it a billionaire-backed boondoggle, aimed primarily at replacing teachers and extracting data from children? When it comes to “personalized learning,” there’s no shortage of hyperbole from either proponents or critics.

Here’s what you need to know about the realities of one of the biggest, most controversial trends in K-12 education—starting with the most difficult question first.

What exactly is personalized learning?

Inside K-12 schools, the term is used to mean just about anything.

For many educators, it’s about using adaptive software that adjusts to each student’s skill level. Sometimes, it’s about the systematic use of digital data to inform big decisions, like how to group students. Other schools focus on giving students more say over what projects they undertake, or how they present their work. And increasingly, personalized-learning proponents also take a much wider lens, saying schools must nurture each individual child’s social, emotional, and physical development.

Some see such scattered and nebulous definitions as reason to worry that personalized learning will go the way of other short-lived reforms. Others are more positive.

“In the same way that Inuits have lots of different words for ‘snow,’ I think these are all personalized learning,” says Larry Bergerthe CEO of ed-tech company Amplify and a leading thinker and writer on the topic for over a decade.

What’s the hope behind the movement?

Very broadly speaking, the idea is to customize the learning experience for each student according to his or her unique skills, abilities, preferences, background, and experiences.

The hope is that it will improve a wide range of student outcomes, from engagement to achievement to wellbeing.

Personalized-learning pioneer Dianne Tavenner told Education Week in 2017 that it’s about the type of education good teachers have always envisioned, but haven’t always had the tools to make a reality.

“Personalized learning is a way to actually enact the pedagogy we believe in and that kids thrive in,” said Tavenner, the founder of Summit Public Schools, a California-based charter network that operates about a dozen of its own personalized-learning schools while licensing its personalized-learning software to hundreds of others.

So is this a new idea or not?

Not really.

The personalized learning movement has two primary wings, each of which is grounded in decades-old (and often warring) philosophies about how children learn. The so-called “engineering model” of personalized learning emphasizes efficient mastery of academic content. The idea is that experts can map out what each child needs to learn, measure what each child already knows, and then create the optimal path for him or her to learn the rest.

Other approaches to personalized learning are rooted in progressive education traditions. This wing of the movement generally holds that learning happens when schools tap into students’ interests and passions, giving them individualized opportunities to ask questions and explore and take risks.

The former approach dates at least back to the 1950s, when psychologist BF Skinner was experimenting with “teaching machines” intended to let students answer questions and receive feedback at their own pace. The latter goes back more than a century, to John Dewey. It’s often seen today in schools that emphasize more project-based learning.

In both cases, what is new is the way in which technology—from big data to online collaboration tools to social media—is being used to amplify methods educators have been using more or less forever.

Where did the new push for personalized learning come from?

Big-picture, it’s a reflection of deeper trends in both society and the K-12 sector.

Technology has already transformed other sectors of society, such as retail. Often, this has taken the form of using digital data to learn more about individuals and their preferences, then target them with information, advertisements, and recommendations. In part, personalized learning is a reflection of the push to apply those tools and ideas to education.

It’s also emerged out of rising opposition to standardized tests and the so-called “factory model of education,” which critics contend has left both children and teachers feeling like widgets inside the classroom. These broad forces started to come together in tangible form roughly a decade ago.

Beginning around 2009, for example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began investing hundreds of millions of dollars to support research and development around personalized learning.

Then, under President Obama, the US Education Department gave half a billion dollars to encourage districts to embrace the trend, primarily via its competitive-grant program known as Race to the Top. More recently, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the venture-philanthropy group started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, has vowed to give hundreds of millions of dollars per year in support of its vision for “whole-child personalized learning ,” encompassing students’ emotional and physical development as well as their academic learning.

States, companies, other philanthropies, and a network of nonprofits and advocacy groups are also now backing the movement.

Do personalized learning strategies work?

Oh yeah. Big time.

In 2018, for example, the Education Week Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey of the country’s school principals.

More than half characterized personalized learning as either a “transformational way to improve public education” or a “promising idea.”

A whopping 97 percent said their schools were using digital technologies to personalize learning in some form or fashion.

Does personalized learning work?

That’s precisely the wrong question to ask.

John Panea senior scientist at the RAND Corporation and a leading researcher of the personalized learning movement says the reason why goes back to the incredible variations in how personalized learning actually happens in real classrooms.

“At this stage, we really need to be looking at the actual components of what people are trying to do and assess them each on their own,” Pane said.

That’s an argument that proponents generally embrace. They point to the strong research base for some of the core building blocks of most personalized-learning models, including providing students with differentiated instruction and real-time feedback.

Some studies of specific personalized-learning products, used in particular situations and under particular circumstances, have also yielded promising signs.

But other such studies have shown small or even negative results.

And what about personalized-learning models that seek to transform entire schools? Experts estimate there are maybe 1,000 or so schools in the country. How are they doing?

Summit is one of the best-known, best-funded examples, having received more than $40 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. But Tavenner’s group has declined to undergo independent third-party evaluation.

The results for other models that have been studied are generally not great.

“The evidence base is very weak at this point,” said Pane, who led a Gates-funded study of about 40 personalized-learning schools, finding modest gains and big implementation challenges.

Are there other arguments against personalized learning?

You betcha.

Critics such as independent researchers Audrey Watters warn that personalized learning is a pretext for “massive data collection” and surveillance of students. They point to the rapid adoption of analogous technologies in other sectors (think, for example, Facebook), before the unintended and adverse privacy-related consequences we are now seeing could be ironed out.

That 2018 Education Week Research Center survey also found that a strong majority of the nation’s principals worried that the trend was leading to too much screen time for students (85 percent expressed “some,” “a lot” or “a great deal” of concern), students working alone too often (77 percent), and the tech industry gaining too much influence over public education (67 percent.)

Where does all that leave schools?

Pane and his team at RAND say K-12 educators, administrators, and policymakers are in the unenviable position of having to make high-stakes educational decisions with “imperfect evidence.”

That doesn’t mean they should stick their heads in the sand, the RAND team said. Personalized learning holds promise. Careful, cautiously attempts at some elements of the trend may make sense. Stick to common sense and the evidence we do have, they advise. Resist the pressure to throw out established practices that work just because they’re not new and shiny.

But think twice before diving in.

“I would not advise schools to dump massive resources into going completely into personalized learning,” Laura S. Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist and distinguished chair in learning and assessment at the RAND Corporation, told Education Week in 2017. “Experiment with some new approaches that might be a good fit for your particular school or district, but monitor it very closely.”