Technology Is Only Part of Personalized Learning


Mar 4, 2016

A teacher and student in a classroom looking at a laptop

Photo by Rob/Fotolia

When Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg announced that he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, would eventually give most of their considerable fortune to philanthropic causes, the inclusion of “personalized learning” among the initiatives they plan to support raised questions, including: What is personalized learning?

That's because personalized learning is still a developing set of ideas that are complex and not yet clearly articulated. Educators, developers and policymakers are still working out the details of this innovative approach to K-12 education that essentially tailors instruction to each student's individual needs, skills and interests. Although the idea of individualizing instruction is not new, the concept of personalized learning as a dominant instructional approach has gained favor in recent years, partly because new technology applications help to facilitate it.

Indeed, technology is a focal point in Zuckerberg and Chan's discussion of personalized learning in “A letter to our daughter.” The initiative's support of personalized learning will include developing the technological tools to make the approach available “to students around the world” via the Internet, the couple wrote.

Standing alone, such language can imply technology has a more dominant role than is actually the case in many personalized learning designs, and that interpretation has alarmed some parents, educators and policymakers. One oft-expressed concern: Personalized learning could mean having students interacting with devices all day long with little social contact or guidance and teaching from adults.

On the contrary, in researching personalized learning we have found that teachers play an integral role in designing and managing the learning environment, leading instruction, and providing expert guidance and support while encouraging students to take increasing ownership of their learning. Group work and peer interactions also occupy a substantial amount of instructional time.

The RAND Corporation recently published our findings from the most rigorous and large-scale study to date on personalized learning. The report describes what personalized learning looks like in a diverse set of schools adopting the approach, and presents evidence of its effectiveness for student learning. The results are promising: Students in about 60 personalized learning schools outperformed similar students attending schools that used more traditional approaches.

The study sheds light on the many ways that schools are adopting personalized learning. Designers of personalized learning school models are thinking more broadly than just about technology as they design their schools and deploy their resources. For example, they are exploring ways to staff their schools so students can receive more individual attention from teachers and counselors, and they are reconsidering how to structure the school day and the physical space to support new instructional models.

Those who characterize personalized learning as “students just using computers or other devices” are greatly oversimplifying it. Using technology to deliver instruction is an option, but the potential benefits of technology extend well beyond this role. Managing a classroom becomes a more challenging and complex task when students work on varied topics and materials instead of on the same material at the same time. New software that supports this process is enabling personalization to be adopted on a large scale. These systems are designed to frequently engage teachers, parents and the students collaboratively in helping to develop and actively manage each student's learning goals and monitor progress. Together, they draw on textbooks, projects, field trips—as well as technological and other educational resources—to design each student's personalized learning plan.

As this developing model of education gains traction, it will be necessary to refine policies to best enable it. For example, traditional models of assessment and accountability can be a hindrance. In personalized learning, children who are performing far below grade level work to develop skills and knowledge typically taught at lower grade levels, and traditional grade-level assessments may not properly reflect their achievement gains. But New Hampshire's Department of Education, for instance, is working with researchers to develop competency-based assessment systems that would afford more flexible ways for students to demonstrate progress by taking assessments that are tailored to their learning levels. Other work is underway to address issues such as ensuring appropriate student privacy in an education system that will increasingly rely on data and technology.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative shines a spotlight on one of the most promising innovations in K-12 education, one that is multi-faceted and not just about technology. This investment could help to spread these ideas while increasing understanding of how to implement them most effectively. It also could allow researchers to confirm early signs that personalized learning may be the future of education.

John F. Pane is Distinguished Chair of Education Innovation and Laura S. Hamilton is Associate Director of Education at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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