Should we pursue personalized learning?
Ed Trends

Should we pursue personalized learning?

It has big sponsors, makes regular appearances at education conferences and district-led initiatives. But can we say with any confidence that we are closer to achieving personalized learning …whatever that may be?

The promised benefits of a well-implemented personalized learning system are clearly desirable. More engaged students, with greater confidence in their learning and a more accessible education system, are surely worth pursuing—however tricky the development phase. 

But are these outcomes achievable, or is the concept of personalized learning inherently confusing and a distraction from other more straightforward education initiatives?

Let’s take a dive into what personalized learning means, the controversies surrounding it and potential benefits.



What even is personalized learning?

Personalized learning has nothing even approaching a universal definition. The term can and is used to describe everything from school-wide redesigns to individual software application purchases and all that lies in between. So what actually is it?

Well, it’s tricky to say for certain what someone means when they mention personalized learning, but there is an essence to the term. In its most basic form, the goal is to customize learning to an individual student’s needs. This is done primarily by giving every student greater control over their learning. However, the areas that students are given control over varies hugely depending on the type of personalized learning environment you want to create. 

There are two main categories of personalized learning:


1.Pace-driven personalized learning

Pace-driven personalized learning allows students to move through learning materials and exercises at the speed which best suits them. It recognizes that not everyone learns at the same rate and that individuals will find certain topics or principles more interesting or easier to process than others. 

This form of personalized learning is typically done using an online learning management system where teachers facilitate by providing examples and explaining concepts and then students can move through exercises and more information at their own pace. Usually, within this system, the curriculum is already set, and students simply control the speed at which they follow it. 


2.Student-driven personalized learning

Student-driven personalized learning involves students taking a lead in developing the curriculum they learn. They are encouraged to follow their own interests or goals and learn about subjects which will help them to answer questions they are passionate about. Students can work individually or collaboratively and have their progress monitored and helped by a teacher. 

It’s worth bearing in mind that between these two pillars of personalized learning are many shades and variations. These broad schools help to define the movement in general.



What are some of the controversies surrounding personalized learning?

Since its inception, personalized learning has polarized opinion. Everyone from teachers to learning theorists to members of the public have raised issues with the lofty goals and demands of the personalized learning system. Some of the key issues of controversy are:


  • Computer use (or overuse): Technology is often a key tool in the pursuit of personalized learning, and this in itself can be controversial. Concerned parents have reported that their children are now spending the majority of their time in front of screens – as an enforced part of education as well as in leisure time. The effects of this are yet to be fully understood, but it is likely reducing physical exertion and time for socialization. Some students in personalized learning programs have even complained that overreliance on tech has led to a lack of meaningful interaction with teachers.
  • Learning by algorithm: Personalized learning can rely on online playlists of learning materials and activities that students work through. Algorithms can be used to determine the content of these playlists and builds a customized journey based on the student’s strengths and interests. However, there are concerns that this form of algorithm-based learning is dehumanizing and takes the vital elements of collaboration and engagement from the classroom. 
  • Associations with big data organizations: Personalized learning has some big sponsors, but with them come some difficult associations. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook at large have done a lot of work to support this movement in education. However, the presence of large data organizations with a less than transparent relationship to user privacy have led some to worry that the movement has the potential to become a data-mining exercise for big tech corporations.
  • Grading issues: Student-driven personalization often replaces traditional grading practices with competency-based assessment. A grading system based on students demonstrating learned skills. Some worry that moving away from traditional GPA and class rank info will make college applications more challenging for personalized learners and prevent them from getting into good schools. 
  • Total disruption: Personalized learning, particularly the student-driven pillar, can be difficult to truly incorporate into classrooms without totally upending current curriculum expectations. This can be a tough transition for schools, and there are currently few guidelines on how to do it successfully. 



What are the benefits of personalized learning?

In a learning context inspiration is often the missing component of formalized education. A one-size-fits-all curriculum regularly fails to capture students’ imaginations and can end up feeling like a conveyor belt of process, rather than a journey to discovery. Personalized learning aims to recapture the spark that gives learning true joy. By meeting students where they are, cultivating their interests and giving them time and challenges to strengthen areas of weakness, we can build a more enjoyable educational experience for everyone. 

Indeed early evidence by the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education suggests that students are deeply engaged by having more say in what and how they learn. Pupils in the study found a great sense of agency in doing work that was applicable to the real world and which held personal and social significance. Both teachers and parents were inspired by the new levels of inquiry and engagement from the students when learning was personal.

On the basis of such studies, it would seem that there are some monumentally positive impacts to incorporating elements of personalized learning into the classroom. So how can you introduce aspects of the system without totally overturning the system? And can you do so without running headfirst into the controversies described above?


4 Techniques to bring personalized learning into your school

For those interested in trying out some aspects of personalized learning there are some accessible ways to start. Here are our favorites:

  1. Flexible classroom environments: Flexible classrooms that provide seating and equipment for a variety of activities help to spark inspiration and allow for a variety of learning activities. Consider setting up places for group work, quiet spaces, computer lab areas or standing desks. 
  2. Create learner profiles: Try to get to know your students as a fully rounded person. Capture a holistic view of their interests, learning preferences and goals. This will allow you to support them as individuals and maybe even design a few learning activities around common interests or with variations to suit learning styles. 
  3. Offer different learning pathway options: Instead of set activities that have to be followed by everyone, consider offering a variety of materials and activities. Students can choose the ones which appeal to them most and develop their own journey. 
  4. Choosing accessible applications: Where software and edtech applications are concerned, choose products that provide a range of modes of expression. For example, Kami provides tools such as speech-to-text, video and audio comments alongside colorful drawing functions and highlighting, make any file come to life. Teachers can also view work in real-time to offer personalized feedback and guidance during their work, instead of only grading it after the fact.
  5. Get students involved in lesson planning and goal setting: Often students are totally excluded from the lesson planning process. It can be incredibly empowering to seriously discuss and allow them to express their thoughts and preferences on activities and learning strategies. Similarly, having students think seriously and critically about their own learning journey, what they need to improve on and what their goals are can really help to engage them in the whole process. 



Is personalized learning worth pursuing? 

Like many educational reforms before it, personalized learning divides public opinion. The undefinability of this particular reform makes it difficult to both explore and truly analyze. There are definitely dangers in dismantling old systems and overburdening already busy teachers with extra demands to personalize the material. However, the results of giving learners more avenues for self-expression and involvement in their own learning are undeniably positive. 

Perhaps at the heart of this controversy is personalized learnings current form of enablement – ie. its heavy reliance on technology. Tech certainly makes elements of personalized learning easier to provide. However, if it’s not part of a more cohesive system it can lead to broader problems such as isolation and computer-related injuries such as RSI. It’s also important to carefully curate the apps and software that you do use within edtech so as to ensure that data privacy is up to scratch. You want apps and tools that your students will be safe to work on and will benefit their education. 

So what is the answer here? Personalized learning offers many good things, but only is it is carefully managed and continuously related back to pupil happiness and progress. 


At Kami we believe that research-based learning solutions and a healthy dose of EdTech is the best way to nurture a well-rounded future generation. Learn more about how Kami could help your school’s learning goals today.

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