A vision for PERSONalized learning

Today, educators must make degree completion more accessible to an ever-growing, ever-changing population of highly diverse students with equally diverse learning needs. It’s no wonder so many are exploring personalized learning, or that so many diverse perspectives have emerged about its use in K–12 and higher education. Too often, though, the most important element is missing from discussions about personalized learning: the human element.

Personalized learning has been defined as a methodological principle that employs: “…a diverse variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students”.1 It typically focuses on pedagogical opportunities and technologies that modularize, tailor, and pace learning experiences at scale within and across student cohorts. Personalized learning, therefore, contrasts sharply with traditional “one-size-fits-all,” “sink-or-swim” approaches, which often fail to reflect individual student needs.

Organizations such as Educause have stressed personalized learning’s reliance on “IT systems and tools, along with rich data sets and analytics programs.”2 Prominent technology leaders have invested significant resources to study and develop it. In late 2015, for example, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced their plans to include personalized learning software and technologies among their philanthropic causes as they donate much of their Facebook investment.3

Partnering with RAND Corporation and various schools, the Gates Foundation has also invested significant resources in studying the effects of personalized learning technology on student performance and outcomes.4 A Phase I report from late 2015 shows “promising” results, linking improved student performance to personalized learning interventions.5 Further, large for-profit entities such as IBM are driving the movement, using cloud-based, mobile, social, and data-analytic technology to “personalize learning to the individual” and align students with “career pathways for better outcomes.”6

Given the prominence of stakeholders from tech-centric businesses and organizations, some contend that personalized learning is merely a marketing term: simply a new way to sell technology based on principles that should already exist in any well-designed course.7

Indeed, whether considered as a marketing term, a methodology, or a research-based learning science practice, much discussion about personalized learning does focus primarily on technology. Data-driven technology systems typically “serve content and activities to students based on statistical and instructional models.”8 Anecdotal accounts and early empirical findings abound on the technical deployment of digital evaluation tools, next-gen digital courseware, computer-based learning programs, dynamic and formative digital assessment systems, digital and interactive resource tools, and mobile devices.

The discussions are vibrant, and the technical developments are rapid. Unfortunately, the heart of any successful personalized learning system is often neglected: the human teacher, tutor, coach, or mentor. While these indispensable people are indeed recognized as working in conjunction with and alongside personalized learning elements, they are typically positioned as distinctly separate.9

Personalized learning vision, research, and development will be far more transformative if it focuses on opportunities to strategically interject human-delivered instruction of all types throughout its technology and content. By positioning human teachers at the center of these systems, we can create truly transformative and seamless learning environments that are both scalable and economically viable.

To understand what this might mean in practice, imagine a scenario like this:

  1. A content author melds text with media drawn from news reports, factually represented fictional scenes, lab settings, and verified social media content.
  2. Using Virtual or Augmented Reality devices such as Microsoft’s Hololens®, the learner is then placed within the content as a participant.
  3. A human teacher or tutor is then seamlessly interjected into the learner’s experience, walking through key processes (e.g., demonstrating a chemical engineering process or helping a nursing student calculate dosages for a life-or-death injection).
  4. While text and other content remain accessible in the background; the student “lives” the educative moment with a human expert.
  5. Students have self-paced tools for drilling down on any issue and exploring linked references.
  6. Tutors are available on demand for questions that cannot be addressed by content alone.
  7. The entire engagement embeds comprehension pauses, memory tests, and other “stops,” all set to the individual’s learning needs.
  8. Seamless access to additional guidance and teaching is always available, whether initiated by the student’s request, the system’s diagnosis that the student has encountered trouble, or a prediction made by data analytics.
  9. Whenever skilled human presence is required or automated pedagogical agents can’t answer a student’s question, the student is seamlessly passed to a human tutor.

With limitless enabling resources such as these, learning excites—especially in the sciences, engineering, and high-stakes disciplines such as nursing and allied health. By merging content, technology, and human instruction at the most meaningful moments throughout the learning process, we can create more powerfully effective learning solutions than ever before.

As an education community we must aggressively create new pathways for student learning, accessibility, and degree completion. That means fully embracing what personalized learning can ultimately offer, when we truly bring the human and the technical together, and place human teachers at the center.10


1 "Personalized Learning Definition." The Glossary of Education Reform. May 14, 2015. Accessed August 23, 2016. http://edglossary.org/personalized-learning/.

2 "Personalized Learning." Home. Accessed August 23, 2016. https://library.educause.edu/topics/teaching-and-learning/personalized-learning.

3 Edwards, Haley Sweetland. "Why Mark Zuckerberg Wants to Spend on Personalized Learning." Time, December 2, 2015.

4 "Personalized Learning." Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Accessed August 23, 2016. http://postsecondary.gatesfoundation.org/areas-of-focus/personalized-learning/.

5 Pane, John F., Elizabeth D. Steiner, Matthew D. Baird, and Laura S. Hamilton. "Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning." Rand Corporation, November 2015. Accessed August 23, 2016. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.7249/rr1365.

6 "IBM Personalized Learning on Cloud." IBM Personalized Learning on Cloud. Spring 2016. Accessed June 6, 2016. https://www.ibm.com/marketplace/cloud/personalized-adaptive-learning/purchase/us/en-us

7 Feldstein, Michael, and Phil Hill. "Personalized Learning: The Hype, the Hope, and the Straight Dope." Educause Learning Initiative, January 2016, 1-5. Accessed August 23, 2016. https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2016/1/elib1601-pdf.pdf.

8 DiCerbo, Kristen. "Learners, Teachers, and Technology: Personalization in 2015 and Beyond." Wired.com. Accessed August 23, 2016. http://www.wired.com/insights/2015/01/learners-teachers-and-technology-personalization-in-2015-and-beyond/.

9 "A Working Definition of Personalized Learning." Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Accessed August 23, 2016. https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/1311874/personalized-learning-working-definition-fall2014.pdf/.

10 Warneryd, Lina. "Manipulated Reality: The New Frontier." Prezi. June 7, 2016. Accessed August 23, 2016. https://prezi.com/m9t0zv1axx_z/manipulated-reality-the-new-frontier/.

Filed Under: Higher Ed
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