Is Personalized Learning Possible?

A former senior program officer at the Gates Foundation has noticed something changing when people talk about personalized learning.

“A lot of the conversation would be about why. Why do you need personalized learning? Why is it a good innovation and direction we should be going in?” Helayne Jones said. “And now, you’re not hearing the questions about why. You’re hearing the questions about how.”

“I think most national funders working on K-12 are looking to make personalized learning investments in a variety of ways,” Jones said.

Personalized learning grabbed headlines last year with several big gifts from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s philanthropic outfit. Jones now works as a consultant to New Profit, a nonprofit accelerator that received one of those big gifts, for $13 million, from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Gates Foundation. In turn, these funds are being dispersed to groups working at the forefront of personalized learning. 

CZI escalated its personalized learning work after bringing Jim Shelton on board. Shelton is a former deputy secretary of education and previously worked for the Gates Foundation.

CZI funded several personalized learning projects in 2017. It helped fund Rhode Island’s move to bring personalized learning to classrooms statewide. CZI made donations of undisclosed amounts to Chiefs for Change, which works with a network of districts across the country, and the College Board, as we reported. CZI is also promoting a free personalized learning tool, the Summit Learning Platform, a project that began at Facebook in partnership with Summit Learning, and is now a centerpiece of CZI's work in this space. 

While personalized learning’s rise is undeniable, defining it is trickier. Generally speaking, the term refers to tailoring instruction to students’ needs, but in practice, it can take a wide range of forms. 

“Personalized learning is not particularly well-defined. There’s no definition that’s coalesced yet within the space,” said Elisabeth Stock, CEO of PowerMyLearning. “And so everyone is doing different things that they are calling personalized learning. There's no definitive answer,” Stock said.

The national nonprofit partners with schools and districts in under-resourced communities to help them implement personalized learning. PowerMyLearning is among the groups that landed recent funding from New Profit. It's also received grants in recent years from a wide range of other funders, including the Carnegie Corporation, the Broad Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and a number of corporations. 

A classroom following PowerMyLearning’s model has multiple stations where students engage in different modalities of learning. For example, Stock said, for a lesson on probability, a teacher may lead a mini-lesson on the topic in part of the classroom, while at another station, students work together on an activity rolling dice. At a third station, students do independent work while logged onto PowerMyLearning’s collaborative platform.

In a PowerMyLearning classroom, there would also be periodic homework assignments designed to engage families in their children’s learning, but that is not necessarily a characteristic of personalized learning.

The third station, the collaborative platform, is the biggest reason we’ve been hearing so much about personalized learning lately.  

Personalized learning doesn’t necessarily have to include technology. Tailoring instruction to student needs is an idea that has been around for a while. The research to back it up dates back to 1980, with work led by Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago. The practice, arguably, goes back further than that to Maria Montessori’s work in the early 1900s.

However, practitioners and funders say new technology has made it easier to put personalized learning into practice.  

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Beth Rabbitt, the CEO of Learning Accelerator, an organization that supports implementation of blended learning in schools, has observed this in her work.

“Personalized learning for every student, every day is a really tough load for teachers,” Rabbitt said. “I think the places where technology has the most potential as it relates to personalized learning is helping teachers and students do what they’ve been trying to do, but haven’t been able to actually do without new resources and tools.”

Jones reported a similar sentiment: “Teachers would just say to me, ‘Personalized learning allows me to be the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.”

“When you have 30 students in a classroom, you desire to be able to know each student personally, and understand their learning style, and really meet their needs. The reality is that that has been very difficult to do at the individual level,” Jones said.

“Over the years we’ve seen things like differentiation of instruction, dividing classrooms into groups that appear to be students all working at the same level and then mixing groups and things like that,” Jones said. “Technology has brought innovation that really gives teachers tools that allow students at certain points in the day, certainly not all day long, to be working independently and individually using a technology tool that gives the teacher real-time data not only on how the student is doing, but also where learning gaps may exist. And having that information allows teachers to do what they’ve always wanted to do, which is meet students where they are and help them grow.”

The reports have piqued the interest of funders, too.

The field has especially caught the eye of Silicon Valley donors, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the discipline’s new emphasis on technology. As we've reported, the Khan Academy—which offers "personalized learning resources for all ages"—has attracted funding from a number of tech winners, including John Doerr, Reed Hastings, Scott Cook, and the Gates Foundation. We've also written about the CK-12 Foundation, co-founded by Neeru Kholsa, wife of billionaire Vinod Khosla, and bankrolled by the couple's Amar Foundation. Its educational tech tools are currently used by thousands of schools in the U.S. and a growing number of international schools. In addition, personalized learning has received attention from the Emerson Collective, the philanthropic organization of Laurene Powell Jobs.

But the activity around personalized learning, and the funding coming into this space, has notably increased in just the past year, particularly with CZI's emergence as a major leader here. CZI has big ambitions for its Summit Learning Platform, which is used in a growing number of schools. Many of CZI's new hires over the past year have been engineers, with more to come as it rapidly ramps up. CZI's multiple roles in the personalized learning space—as a direct provider of tech tools, a grantmaker to other such providers like PowerMyLearning, and a private investor in ed tech—is likely to create some tricky issues over time for the organization and its partners to navigate. 

The Carnegie Corporation has also been a long-time supporter of education models that incorporate personalization. Learning Accelerator, New Profit and PowerMyLearning are all Carnegie grantees. For the foundation, personalization in the classroom includes a variety of learning modalities linked to students’ strengths and goals, data-driven, real-time feedback for students and teachers, embedded assessments and effective use of technology, Saskia Levy Thompson, a Carnegie program director, said in a statement.

In the past, Gates funded personalized learning initiatives, but the foundation is taking a step back to focus efforts on research and development, and school- and district-led projects. Those projects could end up including personalization—the emphasis on curriculum and technology in a speech Bill Gates gave in October certainly sounds reminiscent of some pieces of personalized learning. However, the work is not guaranteed to include personalization.

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Not a Silver Bullet

While technology plays a big role in the messaging around personalized learning, advocates of personalization are careful to emphasize that technology is a tool, not a silver bullet. Technology should strengthen relationships among teachers, students and families, not fill the role of adults in kids’ educations.

“The solution is not technology. The solution is the way technology enables teachers to do their jobs better,” Jones said.

Even CZI, which cites its belief in technology’s potential for good in the world as what sets it apart from traditional philanthropic organizations, emphasized relationships in a recent op-ed from Jim Shelton, the head of the institute’s education division.

“Our notion of personalized learning, by contrast, is focused on enabling powerful relationships and shared experiences between people — between teachers and students as well as students with their peers, each empowered by learning opportunities with fewer boundaries and much more intensive support,” Shelton wrote.  

“Technology can support great teaching and has the potential to help individualize learning experiences in ways and at a scale that Bloom could not have imagined in the 1980s,” Shelton said. “But it is still just a tool. The heart and soul of education remains about great practitioners working lovingly and skillfully to create the environments and experiences that truly change lives.”

Leaders in the nonprofit sector strike a similar tone. Stock’s organization, PowerMyLearning, is careful to use technology to strengthen relationships, not replace the role of teachers or family members in kids’ education. “Our proven approach connects the people that matter most in students’ lives—their teachers and parents—to student learning, rather than using technology to replace those people,” Stock said.

Jones fears the risk of an over-emphasis on technology in a field that’s scaling quickly. She remembers when education reformers put technology into classrooms before considering how it should be used.

“If every student has a laptop, but what they’re doing on the laptop is not rigorous, if it isn’t aligned to strong standards, and if it’s just kids just sitting and looking at a screen, that isn’t improving instruction, right?” Jones said. “I think that a lot of places rushed to give every kid a laptop, but then nothing changed around instruction, around student agency and ownership, around assessment and use of data.”

“I think we’ve seen a lot of examples of that, and there certainly is concern about a rush to scale too quickly on personalized learning strategies,” she said.

But Does it Work?

With all the funding and fanfare around personalized learning, how much do we know about whether it actually works? It’s a little too early to say. While arguments for personalized instruction go back at least 30 years, many efforts in this field are still pretty new, and not enough time has passed to evaluate how well they work. 

A 2015 RAND study was encouraging, but the results from a 2017 RAND study commissioned by the Gates Foundation were more mixed. Students in personalized learning settings saw modest gains in math over students in normal settings, the study found. Students also saw gains in reading, but study authors did not consider the difference statistically significant.

More notable were the ways in which schools incorporating personalized learning looked different from traditional schools, and the ways in which the two looked pretty similar.

Schools typically adopted strategies like one-on-one tailored support for learning, allowing students to track their own progress, competency-based learning, flexible use of staff, space and time, and using up-to-date information on student progress to make instruction more personalized and group students together, the study found.

However, other personalized learning practices, like student-teacher discussions on progress and goals, up-to-date documentation of student strengths, weaknesses and goals, and student choice of topics and materials, were harder to implement. In those areas, the personalized learning schools resembled their more traditional counterparts, the study concluded.

Beth Rabbitt argues that looking at the success of the different pieces of personalized learning is a more productive way to evaluate the concept.

“The way we think about personalization is sort of a bundle of strategies that educators are using in schools to get at the unique needs that learners are bringing. There is actually a pretty robust evidence base for the strategies behind all that,” Rabbitt said. For example, there’s strong evidence for mastery-based learning, which allows students to move forward when they’ve mastered a concept, rather than when the class is scheduled to move forward, she said.

Jones points out that the field is still early in the learning process. “The reality is there are multiple aspects of personalized learning, and because it’s so early, we don’t really know which aspects of personalized learning will result in the best improvements for students and we don’t know if all the aspects of personalized learning are necessary,” she said.

Lots of Questions

As the field develops, Rabbitt argues it’s important to acknowledge and address failings and limitations of personalized learning.

“It’s really important that the sector creates a space where having conversations not just about what success can look like, but also the things that people are trying that are not working because we tend to not highlight that as much,” Rabbitt said. “I think it’s holding us back as a sector.”

Some of the shortcomings Rabbitt thinks the field should acknowledge is the trade-off that happens when you bring technology into a classroom. “If you put a student on a computer working independently that is time they don’t get working with their peers or with a teacher,” she said. Some students, often the more vulnerable students, need those relationships to thrive.

Personalized learning also tends to mirror the gaps in learning and differences in instruction found in traditional settings, Rabbitt said. In affluent schools, instruction focused on critical thinking, inquiry and creative tasks. Lower-income schools emphasized memorization, she said.

One area Rabbitt didn’t bring up, but has drawn criticism from parents is the use of student data.

Supporters of personalized learning often point to up-to-date, real-time data on students’ mastery and learning gaps as one of the biggest advantages new technologies give teachers. Student data can tell a teacher what a student is getting and what she isn’t before the formal evaluation of a quiz or test. Early information allows for early intervention and can prevent a student from falling behind.

Personalization requires knowing each student individually. Technology has made that easier, supporters argue.

However, some parents are skeptical that that will be the only use of their children’s data. The Summit Learning Platform, for example, has drawn ire from critics. CZI’s proximity to Facebook, a for-profit company criticized for its opaque use of user data has not helped soothe parents’ fears. Summit cites its Privacy Policy’s pledge not to sell or profit from student data, but critics say the policy is too open-ended and puts few limits on Summit when it comes to sharing the data.

It's still early days for personalized learning. As the field develops it will be interesting to see which strategies stick and which are discarded. If nothing else, it's encouraging the leaders within the field are so open to conversations about what works and what doesn't.

A key big question going forward will be whether more funders buy in to personalized learning and whether existing ones like CZI are encouraged enough to really up their commitments. In turn, this is likely to depend on further evaluation of these approaches. Discouraging data and findings could act as a major dampener of funding, and vice versa. The fact that the Gates Foundation already seems to be pulling back from personalized learning suggests that the field could face a bumpy ride, in terms of funding, in coming years.