This feature is part of a series focused exclusively on personalized learning. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.
Among the most popular buzz phrases in education over the last several years, "personalized learning" is also one of the K-12's most promising trends as the sector works to move away from the "factory model" of the past century and toward what some have called "School 2.0."
"Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning," a 2015 RAND Corporation study funded by the Gates Foundation, spent two years measuring the academic progress of 11,000 students in 62 public charter and traditional schools utilizing a variety of personalized solutions, finding greater gains among those using personalized approaches than a similar comparison group.
Specifically, the study found that students using personalized learning solutions saw gains in math and reading of 11% and 8%, respectively, and longer exposure to those methods saw greater academic gains. Students with lower achievement in the first place also saw higher growth rates.
Furthermore, a 2016 New Classrooms survey of 4,000 middle school students using the nonprofit's "Teach to One: Math" model found 70% believing they improved as independent learners, 75% feeling they worked well independently on a computer with guided support, and 77% saying they worked well independently in a traditional classroom setting with only a teacher's instruction.
But how is personalized learning defined?
As is often the case with a popular buzzword, what exactly constitutes personalized learning has become murky, as more companies use the term to draw attention to their products. As The Learning Accelerator CEO Beth Rabbitt recently told The Hechinger Report, “Personalized learning is easy to bastardize. It’s easy to do it superficially.”
While there isn't exactly a common definition, the simplest explanation of personalized learning encompasses any approach that provides a student with an educational program fitted to their individual needs, interests or cultural background. The Gates Foundation gets breaks its own explanation down into a three-pronged approach that includes systems that tailor instruction to needs, skills and interests; the provision of a variety of experiences meant to facilitate college-and-career readiness; and teachers who manage the learning environment, lead instruction and encourage individual ownership of learning.
Ideally, the model is meant to help students grow into inventive and innovative adults capable of pivoting with the changes transforming a number of industries.
How are schools doing it?
While technology has a heavy hand in many schools' approaches to personalization today, it's not necessarily required. The Montessori system of education, for example, has provided personalization since 1907, positioning teachers as guides who build relationships and check progress with students individually or in small groups, making it easier for them to connect lessons to students' interests.
That approach can be more difficult to take in a traditional public school environment, where an average class might have 25 or more students. Thus, technology has come to play a major role in modern personalization efforts.
Recent entrants to the field include AltSchool, founded by former Google personalization exec Max Ventilla, and charter network Summit Public Schools. Both have expanded tech platforms designed to facilitate personalized learning to a variety of schools in the last few years.
Additionally, a number of publishers and other ed tech vendors have incorporated personalized learning software into their products. McGraw-Hill in October acquired Redbird Advanced Learning, for instance, while Pearson and Knewton have partnered on a personalized math solution.
What's driving its popularity?
Simply put, as Montessori for All Founder and CEO Sara Cotner alluded in a piece for The Hechinger Report, the one-size-fits-all "factory education" model of the last century is no longer feasible for preparing students for a quickly evolving economy and workforce. As Cotner writes, that model is "more aligned with preparing adults to follow directions as opposed to innovate and invent."
Increasing automation in the jobs that sort of basic education best suited, however, demands more creative and technically skilled workers in a more competitive marketplace.
Additionally, achievement gaps have drawn attention to the importance of providing individualized instruction to students who may be progressing faster or slower in some areas than others.
Where is it heading?
While the Montessori system, AltSchool and similar approaches have brought increased attention to small classroom models, the future of personalized learning for traditional schools is likely to be more tech-centric.
The next presidential administration is likely to play a significant role in the future of how public education operates. And if West Michigan Aviation Academy, the public charter school founded by U.S. secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos and her husband Richard is any indication, an ed tech approach utilizing personalized learning facilities could become more commonplace in schools nationwide.
Beyond that, a tech-centric approach also makes personalization much easier to scale than, say, trying to implement the Montessori approach nationwide — and platforms like AltSchool and Summit's Basecamp will likely make that process much more feasible as they evolve.