Unpacking Personalized Learning: A Brief Primer and Implementation Guide

Unpacking Personalized Learning: A Brief Primer and Implementation Guide

In 2015, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, launched a new philanthropic initiative dedicated in part to promoting a growing concept in education: personalized learning. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, more commonly referred to as CZI, is poised to give millions of dollars each year to facilitate the development and implementation of “whole child personalization.” This approach will include specialized software that is intended to help teachers assess students’ individual needs and strengths from a comprehensive point of view.

A note on the CZI website explains the organization’s decision to focus on personalized learning. Every child is different, the website declares, and thus “learners should also be able to make and demonstrate progress in the way that suits them best, at their own pace, inside and outside of the traditional classroom.” According to CZI, personalized learning accomplished through technological tools and specific training for “teachers and school leaders” can set children on an individualized course to realize their greatest potential. (Some examples of what this may look like in the classroom include non-technological tools, such as yoga and meditation.)

One of the group’s current projects is the Summit Learning Platform, a free online program for teachers who want to “customize instruction” for their students. Writing for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Robyn Howton stated that personalized learning “tailors instruction, expression of learning and assessment to each student’s unique needs and preferences.” According to Howton, this kind of individualized approach to learning has always been “ideal,” but recent technological advances are helping the dream become more of a reality.

Other proponents of personalized learning argue that economic changes such as an increase in automation demand that students receive a different kind of education. Scott Benson—a partner in the New Schools Venture Fund, which pairs investors with educational innovations—wrote in 2017 that because our economy is bound to change rapidly due to automation and other factors, education must also change. “Half of today’s jobs may be eliminated by 2055, if not sooner,” Benson asserted. He went on to posit that the students of today and tomorrow will either need to acquire new, yet-to-be determined skills or entirely new outlooks on life.

According to Benson, personalized learning can help students identify their unique “passions,” which will better prepare them for a less structured, more innovative future work life. But what does this mean for teachers working in traditional classrooms today? To promote personalized learning, many educators and administrators are embracing a “blended learning approach.” In this more natural hybrid model, teachers are still the essential guides in a student’s learning process, but technology can help them streamline delivery of a wider variety of lessons and assessments.

In an online piece called “Squaring personalization and digitization in 2018,” blended learning advocate Elizabeth Smart also celebrated personalized learning and its potential to “appeal to each student’s unique strengths.” However, Smart argued that a more individualized approach to teaching has to be about more than the “mere use of software programs.” If innovation means simply applying today’s technological tools to the “same factory and production-oriented structures,” then little will change, as using a computer program to guide students through the same kinds of assignments they might have done 20 years ago is not optimal.

What does work, in Smart's experience, is greater teacher expertise. For instance, teachers who know how to “leverage technology” in pursuit of personalized learning are capable of providing a truly innovative education for students through the use of software and formative assessments. In a well-designed classroom that incorporates both technological tools and a deeper understanding of how students learn best (through constant feedback, reflection, greater control over their own work, and so on), the concept of “personalized learning” looks sharpest. In contrast, an overly “digitized” classroom where technology rules seems less promising.

Robyn Howton’s piece on the ISTE website offered a practical “how-to” for teachers who want to bring more personalization into their existing classrooms. Because not every school districts can offer a “one-to-one” model through either tutoring or personal devices, Howton recommended that teachers start by “using their existing technology.” For example, Howton noted that she allows students to use their cellphones for educational purposes and also makes use of readily available, inexpensive services such as Google Classroom.

Howton acknowledged that she had to learn how to use technology as more than just another way to deliver the same lessons she was already teaching. After all, as Smart argued, merely “digitizing” one’s existing work is not exactly innovative. With this in mind, Howton has used a trial-and-error process to learn how to “carefully construct” personalized units and “learning goals” to support her constantly evolving instructional practice. In one example, she might deliver a lecture through a “screencast” that students can watch at home so class time is reserved for face-to-face question-and-answer sessions.

According to Howton, the ultimate goal is to ensure students are well-prepared through the use of “collaborative technology.” However, as skeptics are all too eager to point out, there will be inevitable bumps in the road along the way. In a 2018 article for the education news site Chalkbeat, journalist Matt Barnum unpacked the transformational promises surrounding CZI and other organizations’ hopes for personalized learning, citing numerous experts who agreed that rushing in with high expectations is to be avoided. One good example of this is Mark Zuckerberg’s notion that personalization can make “average students into exceptional ones.”

Still, as educators like Smart and Howton have asserted, using technology as a creative and collaborative tool might be just what’s needed to help students learn in an engaging and more personalized way. 

How is your school or disctrict supporting personalized learning initiatives? Connect with Lexia on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and let us know your thoughts and experiences on this topic.



Lexia Supports Personalized
Literacy Instruction and Assessment

Lexia helps educators use technology to personalize learning for every student. With Lexia, educators can access both periodic screening and diagnostic data, real-time progress monitoring data, as well as the resources needed to connect student performance data to classroom instruction. Learn more about our research-proven programs for literacy instruction and assessment below.


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