Personalized Learning | Feature

This Time It's Personal

Truly student-centered learning has a lot of support in high places in education, but it can’t happen without the right technology infrastructure to drive it.

Educators have known for some time now that a one-size-fits-all approach to learning does not lead to the level of student engagement and academic success that schools strive to achieve. In their search for a more customized approach to delivering instruction, they’ve explored project-based learning, addressed different learning styles, and increased collaborative learning among students. Educators have also looked to technology for customizable solutions, implementing 1-to-1 laptop programs, utilizing data-driven decision-making tools, and setting up learning management systems to access digital content.

But, for the most part, schools have incorporated these 21st century instructional techniques and tools as add-ons to the teacher-centric 19th century classroom structure, in which the majority of the curriculum is pulled from a textbook, and, despite best intentions, most students learn the same thing in the same way at the same time.

Enter personalized learning, a student-centered teaching and learning model that acknowledges and accommodates the range of abilities, prior experiences, needs, and interests of each student--with the goal of moving every student to a higher standard of achievement. It’s not a particularly new theory (versions of it have been around since the 19th century), but it has gained currency among many of today’s education thought leaders, particularly because technology seems to be ready to do its part to provide a more personalized learning environment for every student.

By marrying the principles of personalized learning with the tools of technology, some educators believe that they have a chance to create the kind of customized learning environment that can finally break schools out of the industrial-age model of education to bring about true 21st century school reform.

But what exactly is personalized learning? And why is technology so central to its outcomes?
De-Mystification Is in Order
To start with, personalized learning is not individualized learning, in which students share the same learning goals but progress through the curriculum at their own pace. Nor is it differentiated instruction, in which students also share learning goals but receive instruction that is tailored to their learning needs.

In the National Education Technology Plan, the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology describes personalized learning as an instructional approach that encompasses both differentiation and individualization, but is also flexible in content or theme to match the specific interests and prior experiences of learners. Karen Cator, director of the OET, explains further: "Personalized learning really takes into consideration that long tail of interest, of prior motivation, of languages. It leverages all the different things that people have in their repertoire to add value to their learning."

The Personalized Learning Foundation says attributes of a personalized learning model include "a strong emphasis on parental involvement, smaller class sizes, more one-on-one teacher and student interaction, attention to differences in learning styles, student-driven participation in developing the learning process, technology access, varied learning environments, teacher and parent development programs, and choices in curriculum programs."

In the PLF model, technology is just one factor, but there are many educators--including Cator and her boss, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan--who advocate a tech-enabled model of personalized learning. According to Cator, access to technology is "the essence and the nature of the opportunity to provide a much more personalized learning environment for students."

In any personalized learning model, the student--not the teacher--is the central figure. In a technophilic view of a personalized learning environment, students have access to traditional learning resources like books and hands-on materials, and time-honored support from people like teachers, parents, mentors, coaches, and schoolmates. But, critically, they have ubiquitous access to technology, which allows them to connect to learning communities, information management and communication tools, personal learning networks, information and data, expertise and authoritative sources, online tutoring and guided sources tailored to their needs, knowledge-building tools, and peers with common interests.

In Cator’s words, "The opportunity with technology is this vast array of resources of interest areas that we can bring into the classroom. The classroom is not a closed system anymore."


Collaboration and Personalized Learning

Personalized learning may be "personal" but it’s also highly social. Collaboration and project-based learning both play a large role in the personalized learning model. When students collaborate on a team, they learn to assess their own strengths, and learn from their peers in areas where they have weaknesses. Project-based learning also presents a dynamic classroom environment that encourages the creativity, engagement, and drive necessary to keep students at the helm of their learning.

As Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District (NC), explains, "Personalized learning can look different from hour to hour and from class to class, but there are some common threads. There are always high levels of engagement, high levels of differentiation, lots of opportunities for students to expand their personal interests through school projects, and a lot of collaboration."

When Edwards’ district implemented its 1-to-1 laptop and personalized learning initiatives for third- through 12th-grade students across the district’s eight schools, it completely redesigned its classrooms as well, replacing rows of desks with tables around which students gather for small-group learning. It also moved to a digital curriculum--the district is now 90- to 95-percent textbook-free.

Edwards says that the increase in student engagement and achievement was dramatic from the start. In five years, the graduation rate has risen from 64 percent to 91 percent. Overall composite scores have risen from 63 to 88--third-best in the state, even as the district ranks 99th in the state in regard to funding. Mooresville pioneered the district-level implementation of the tech-powered personalized learning model, and routinely hosts visitors looking to implement such a model at their own districts.


Leading Through Technology
Thomas Greaves, CEO of The Greaves Group, an educational consulting firm, takes Cator’s point one step further and says that it’s doubtful personalized learning could happen--or at least, happen well--without the right technological tools in place.

"The student, using technology, is better able to personalize their learning than a teacher is," he says. "Teachers don’t have time to sit down and study each student, each day, in each course to figure out what they’re going to do differently with them. Teacher-driven personalization ends up being very weak, with very few factors, whereas if the students are leading their personalization via technology, then their instruction can be personalized based on a hundred variables instead of one or two."

Greaves also seems to suggest that tech-driven personalized learning will, by its very nature, enable individualized learning and that holy grail of teaching, differentiated instruction, in which a teacher adapts classroom instruction to the various needs and skill levels of each student. Historically, differentiated instruction, as a practice, has been incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to implement in a teacher-centered learning environment that is driven by a print-based curriculum. Personalized learning may finally allow individualization and differentiation to actually happen in the classroom.

Ideally, tech-driven personalization combines the best of individualized learning--self-paced, diagnostic-driven--with the ability to adapt to a student’s specific learning styles, interests, and backgrounds. Personalization could be as simple as students compensating for any gaps in their pre-existing knowledge by allowing them to unobtrusively Google unknown terms during group instruction rather than raising their hand, or as sophisticated as students entering information about themselves into a piece of software that selects digital content based on the their interests and skill levels.

Key Tech Elements
Greaves has surveyed more than 1,000 schools in Project RED (Revolutionizing Education), a national survey that his group is conducting, which analyzes the factors that contribute to student success in technology-transformed schools. In his research, Greaves found that teachers who had access to digital tools spend more time each day on personalized and collaborative small-group instruction than on traditional lectures. Greaves found four specific tech implementations as most effective in supporting personalized learning in these classrooms:

A well-implemented 1-to-1 laptop initiative. "Overall, across 1,000 schools, in every grade, in every subject, 1-to-1 laptop initiatives out-performed all other tech-distribution initiatives," explains Greaves. Yet, he adds a caveat: "How the 1-to-1 initiative is implemented is equally important. A well-planned cart or 3-to-1 initiative will outperform a poorly implemented 1-to-1 program." Greaves found that 1-to-1 districts that provide formal change management leadership training for school principals were more likely to see increased teacher training on effectively integrating the laptops into the curriculum, thus leading to an increased incorporation of tools for personalized learning.

Learning management systems. "The learning management system has a tremendous ability to personalize," explains Greaves, "because they provide the framework that supports several different personalization functions without adding a lot of extra work for the teacher. In fact, it’s difficult to have a robust personalization system in place without a well-implemented learning management system."

Access to online remedial coursework. "We found that the No. 1 predictor for success in schools in a number of areas was the availability of fully digital-driven remedial courses that had online curriculum behind them," explains Greaves. In one California high school, Greaves’ team found a remedial algebra class in which every student had already failed the course twice. With the same teacher, they now were accessing the coursework on laptops in a more personalized environment, where the teacher moved from student to student to answer questions as needed, while the students proceeded through digital course materials at their own pace. One hundred percent of the students who attended the class achieved a passing grade.

Open access to search tools. "The effect of search tools on student achievement was kind of amazing to me," remarks Greaves. "The more searches a kid did, the better they scored in a number of variables--the better their test scores, the better their attendance, the more likely they were to go to college, the less likely they were to drop out of school." While he can’t claim that the relationship is causal, Greaves speculates that "a big part of personalization is to keep the learning switch always on," he says, and tech tools like search offer students a chance to keep learning in motion. "You can go to the search engine and find out the answer. Or you can use social media and collaboration tools and ask somebody. Get an answer and then you're back to learning again."
The Netflix Factor
Ed tech experts are also looking to products being developed outside of the education market for ideas on further personalizing core curriculum content to match a student’s specific interests and abilities--the so-called "Netflix factor."

"The opportunity for mass customization is already happening in the consumer sector, with targeted ads, for example, or movie recommendations based on what a consumer has previously viewed or rated positively," remarks Cator. "We can learn a lot from these algorithms and from the different methodologies behind using data to provide more directed, personalized, and customized learning experiences for students."

Some companies are already there. Language-arts publisher Capstone, for example, modeled its web-based MyON Reader software on the Netflix model of customization.

Launched in January 2011, the software pulls up personalized reading lists for students from a library of more than 14,000 enhanced digital books, based on their interests, their Lexile level (the software does a Lexile assessment), and their ratings of their previously read books. Embedded assessments track reading comprehension, and the software delivers data to teachers that allows them to track their students' progress.

The Charleston County School District (SC) introduced the software to their students, districtwide, just before the summer 2011 vacation. One and a half months later, students logged more than 500 hours of summer reading, according to media services coordinator Constance Dopierala. "I expected to see that in our suburban schools where students have computers and internet access at home, but our inner-city, high-poverty students are logging hour after hour of reading," she says. "I’m blown away. I can’t wait to see what this does for student engagement in our schools."

Ed tech experts predict that opportunities for personalized learning will grow as districts are able to set up security infrastructures that allow students to access materials on their personal smartphones, which will bring schools to a more ubiquitous technology environment.

"Students have access to so much information now," says Katie Morrow, media specialist and technology teacher at O’Neill Public Schools (NE), where they have implemented a large 1-to-1 personalized learning program (see "Always Support the Core," page xxx). "And with that access comes the ability to choose what they want to learn, and when and how they want to learn it, and it’s all available to them on their smartphones.

"If we allow them to have these opportunities to harness this technology to personalize their learning, dig deeper in certain subjects, and find real world connections to apply their learning to while they’re going through school, they’re going to be better prepared for their futures, and they’ll be able to provide a better future for us, as well."

"With the right guidance, smartphones are very powerful," agrees Jayne James, formerly the senior director of education leadership at ISTE. "In classrooms where students are allowed to access their own smartphones for learning, they’re already accessing resources almost constantly to build out their learning agenda. The trick is allowing them to use this while maintaining the safeguards that schools put in place to make sure students aren’t accessing inappropriate materials, to make sure the network is secure, and to make sure that students are good digital citizens."

Cultural Change
Greaves has visited more than 1,000 schools as part of his research on technology-transformed schools and he says that he can point to only one district--Mooresville Graded School District (NC)--"where you can go into every classroom in every school and see personalized learning in action."

Greaves’ experience suggests just how far there is still to go to implement a true personalized learning model on a national level. Clearly it’s not just a matter of implementing 1-to-1 programs and accessing some digital curricula. Cultural change has to happen for all stakeholders--including teachers themselves, who, let’s face it, are likewise a product of the industrial education model and need support in understanding and embracing this kind of radical change.

A O’Neill Public Schools, in addition to coaching, modeling, and weekly tech meetings, the district has encouraged teachers to use Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools to support their professional development and expand their professional learning. "When they’re living and breathing these tools," explains Morrow, "they can see the value that social media can bring into their class."
At the start of its 1-to-1 initiative, the district also made the bold decision to issue laptops to students and teachers simultaneously. "We’ve never forced or mandated a certain number of technology-based lessons, we just let the teachers know that they have to allow the students the opportunity to use the computer if they need to," Morrow says. "Tech-based personalized learning in our school has grown so quickly and so rapidly, though, and we really believe it’s being driven by the students suggesting and demonstrating ways to use the laptops within the curriculum." Although the positive response from teachers was not unanimous when they began the 1-to-1 program in 2007, when they had to decide in 2011whether to renew the program for another four years, 100 percent of teachers were in favor of continuing the initiative.

Educating parents and communities about personalized learning is an absolute requirement if schools are going to get buy-in from stakeholders. When the team in Mooresville began planning the implementation of its 1-to-1 personalized learning initiative, they started off by building community awareness--both within the district’s internal community of teachers, principals, and staff, and in the external community beyond the district’s walls--of what they wanted the school experience to be.

Then, in addition to instituting ongoing differentiated teacher training, strengthening the leadership skills of grade-level and department chairs, and increasing their data-driven decision-making capabilities, they extended their training efforts to parents and guardians who, in the personalized learning model, are an important resource in a students’ learning network. "We have opportunities throughout the year for parents to come in and learn more about what their children are learning and how they are learning it," says Mooresville Superintendent Mark Edwards. "We’re trying to build an overall culture in the district that focuses on teamwork and commitment. Our motto is ‘Every child, every day.’"

To Edwards, schools have no choice but to embrace a tech-enabled personalized learning model for education. "It’s a moral imperative," he says. "If we want our students to be able to find meaningful work and be contributing members of a global society, then we need to prepare them for their future, not our past."


Always Support the Core
While skeptics or critics may view a multi-dimensional student-centered model as some loosey-goosey abandonment of high standards, proponents of personalized learning believe this model actually promotes core learning better than the 19th century industrial learning model currently in place, in which all students learn the same thing in the same way at the same time. As the National Education Technology Plan states, "A core set of standards-based concepts and competencies form the basis of what all students should learn but, beyond that, students and educators have options for engaging in learning: large groups, small groups, and activities tailored to individual goals, needs, and interests."

Jayne James, former senior director of education leadership at ISTE, refers to personalized learning as "the marriage of the supply-side and demand-side approaches to education. If you look at how students learn outside of the school day, it’s very demand-driven," she says. "‘What piques my curiosity? What am I interested in?’" A personalized learning model, she says, "allows students to take their interests and connect them to what their teachers supply--the curriculum and the competencies that we want them to learn."

While personalized learning supports the core curriculum, advocates say it also provides a more holistic approach to learning and skill development beyond the core subjects. "We understand that students need to take math, English, and history," explains Katie Morrow, media specialist and technology teacher at O’Neill Public Schools (NE), "but true learning that molds kids into lifelong learners has to be connected to something they care about.

"If I teach myself something that I care about, like playing a specific instrument, the process that I go through in connecting with experts, collaborating with other people who play that instrument, practicing, performing, and recording--everything that’s associated with my learning path will carry over into English class when I need to write a research paper. I’m going to know how to use my social networks and connect to experts. I’m going to understand deadlines and work ethic. I’m going to know how I learn best."

At Morrow’s district, which implemented its personalized learning model along with its 1-to-1 MacBook initiative in the 2007-08 school year, students access online coursework and digital media to drive independent learning in subjects and topics that the rural school is unable to provide classes on, ranging from digital photography to guitar to Google’s SketchUp drafting software. The school provides opportunities for student "experts" to share their knowledge with other students, rewarding them for and validating the effort they put into their independent learning.

"We’ve definitely seen an increase in student engagement and creativity since implementing these programs," says Morrow. "When a teacher gives an assignment, no longer does she expect to receive 20 clones of what she asked for. Students exceed teachers’ expectations so much more now because they have this opportunity to be creative and try things out in different modalities and share their work in different forms of media."

The Latest in Learning Management Systems

Like most software programs, learning management systems are constantly updating their features and adding new functionality. Here, we compile recent news and information about several systems currently on the market, as shared with us by the vendors themselves.

Blackboard Learn 9.1 was shaped by K-12 educator feedback, and designed to meet all K-12 online learning, content management, professional development, and community build­ing needs. It focuses on fostering active and social learning, promoting planning and productivity, enhancing monitoring and evaluation, increas­ing district-wide efficiency, and facilitating professional development. The new release introduces integrated lesson planning, standards alignment, and standards reporting to help teachers align course content and instruction to state standards. As standards evolve based on curricular changes, a new standards mapping tool will automate updates within the learning platform.

Learn 9.1 also enabled interactive mobile learning opportunities through Blackboard Mobile Learn--a set of native mobile applications for popular mobile platforms, including iPhone and BlackBerry.

For more information, visit

Agilix Labs' BrainHoney LMS has now been adopted in all 50 states and more than 50 countries worldwide. The system allows users to search tens of thousands of educational resources to find the curriculum that best fits students' individual needs. Teachers can browse curricula from multiple content providers, search for content by keyword or aligned standard, and simply drag and drop lessons into their courses. It provides a suite of tools that facilitate collaboration not only in traditional forms such as online discussions, blogs, wikis, and journals, but also during the creation and management of digital curriculum. Instructors and institutions can also share materials, quiz items, and other resources with each other to leverage the power community.

In both 2010 and 2011, BrainHoney won "Best Classroom Management System" at the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) CODiE Awards.

For more information, visit

Instructure Canvas is a learning management system native to the cloud. While traditional LMSs use a software model with versions, Instructure updates continuously, with no additional downloaded updates, allowing users to benefit immediately from changes to the system.

Canvas is also taking steps to tackle the growing concern among parents for privacy in their children's digital interactions. Students using the system can choose to be notified in a text message, an e-mail, or a Facebook notification whenever an assignment changes or class notes are posted. This allows teachers to post course materials and message their students without officially "friending" them on Facebook, or storing the student's personal phone numbers. It also provides schools with an audit trail, detailing the interaction.

For more information, visit

MoodleRooms, a Moodle partner, provides e-Learning solutions for K-12 schools to help them manage blended or full-online courses.

Last June, MoodleRooms released joule 2, the newest version of its enterprise platform that provides schools with the same features of open-source Moodle 2, combined with enterprise-level features and service options, including the personalized learning designer (PLD). With the PLD, instructors can automate elements of their courses, enabling different experiences based on a student's interaction. This allows instructors to identify key behaviors and take action to re-mediate or accelerate learning. The PLD goes beyond Moodle 2's basic conditional release capabilities; it enables personalized instruction to create individualized learning paths by establishing event-based "rules" that trigger special messages as well as activities and resources. 

For more information, visit

In early 2011, RCampus launched the newest addition to its ePortfolio suite, FolioMatrix, a new approach to the collection of artifacts, reflections, and assessments. FolioMatrix allows teachers and evaluators to easily monitor student progress in alignment with standards through a full web-based visual layout. It also provides a guided learning structure, which helps students to easily submit, organize, and showcase their work while enabling teachers to save valuable time by streamlining the grading and feedback process.

In addition to availability through Google Apps and the cloud, RCampus is available to institutions through flexible licensing and hosting options, and is free to individual teachers and students with optional upgrades to premium services. Last April, RCampus Outcomes was named a finalist for the annual TechAmerica High-Tech Innovation Awards. The new cloud-based editions of RCampus offer a scalable option, which helps schools manage costs by allowing them to only pay for their usage and the features they need most.

For more information, visit

RM Education
The RM Learning Platform, from RM Education, is specifically designed for K-12, and combines features of a learning and content management system, parent portals, and school websites, offering social networking tools, assessment, student e-portfolios, and staff professional development.

In 2011, RM introduced a range of new user interfaces for children, including blogs, wikis, forums, and chat services in a school-inclusive network. In July, the company introduced a simple rating system for content in the content management system.

Instructional staff across a school or district can now rate educational resources and assessments and share their experiences. The system can be integrated with student information systems, and already supports a variety of technology standards, including SIF. Additional integration options are currently in development.

For more information, visit