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MSPnet Blog: “Personalized: What questions to ask?”

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posted March 20, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

Personalized learning, and its close companion, “competency based learning,” are now the wave of the future, and indeed the very near future.  The Obama administration, in Race To The Top and ESSA  (Every Student Succeeds Act), supports it;  so do high-tech voices such as the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and Eli Broad; so also major business interests such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Hewlett-Packard, and others.  It is a favorite focus for the Nellie Mae Foundation, whose vision combines personalized education, competency-based learning, student control of learning, and the claim that learning takes place anytime, anywhere. Many states are moving in this direction;  New England is a hotbed of personalization (see here and here for very fresh news from Massachusetts, for example.  Tip of the hat to the blog Wrench in the Gears).

i have written before about the abundant use of “straw man” arguments (such as the “factory model“)  to create a sense of urgency and indeed inevitability — now is our chance to break the chains of tradition, so that we can meet the demands of the 21st century economy, and “unleash greatness” (though we also need to move from “great” to “excellent,” as Michael Fullan puts it. ).  Apparently, never before have we realized that learning can take place anytime, anywhere, nor has it been possible….

Because “personalization” is a current nexus for many different strands of policy, rhetoric, marketing, and technical development, it is worth attending to from various angles.  One of these angles is the state of the evidence.  Of course, what “personalized” means varies a lot, but still one can identify some claims, and ask what evidence there is to warrant large investments of public and private funds and large shifts in education policy to adopt the new approach.

The state of research in any field is a moving target, but here is a reasonable read-out on the research base on personalized learning as of 2016, thanks to Data & Society.   The report, authored by Monica Bulger, puts the aspirations for personalized learning thus (page 2):

New technology is promised to level the playing field, effectively creating equal access to learning opportunities by democratizing information and instruction. Advocates hope that a technology- enabled shift (e.g., from teacher-based classroom interventions to personalized tablets and data-driven individualized learning plans) can provide a new incarnation of the one-teacher-one-student model— tailoring the learning experience to individual progress, interests, and goals. Classrooms could then be spaces in which advanced students and struggling students alike not only have their needs met, but are supported in the curious and creative pursuit of their own paths. Through personalized learning, these lofty goals seem within reach.

It’s nice to read a discussion of such a topic that acknowledges some history — that good teachers have always personalized their teaching a lot, for example — but Bulger focuses on the recent vision, which is inextricably linked with technology.   Technology is intrinsic to this movement both as justification (the New Economy is high-tech, and so education must prepare our children to compete), and as mechanism (the goals of the new education can’t really be realized without lots of technology for content delivery, for student expression, and for massive data collection through which smart systems can inform students, teachers, and administrators or policy makers about How It’s Going, and how to do better).

The report also notes that “personalized learning” has become woven together with other ed ideas (also more and more tech-implicated):

The promise of personalized learning is often bundled within competency-based education and/or Common Core, making it difficult to separate the performance of one from the other, or truly distinguish personalized learning from associated assessments or teaching of competencies. At the same time, the controversies surrounding Common Core and competency-based education also tend to shape impressions of personalized learning.


Bulger goes on to describe and illustrate various ideas or approaches embraced by this increasingly comprehensive approach to “21st century” education — adaptive technologies,   big-data and data-driven instruction, and so on.

She then examines what evidence there is for the promised benefits of personlization, differentiation, data-driven instruction, and a few other typical claims.   The basic message is, the promises are being made, and policies are being adopted, on the basis of very little evidence, but rather on the basis of inferences, hopes, and anecdotes.  As with so many innovations in education in recent decades, we are beginning another round of large-scale social engineering, with schools, teachers, students, parents as experimental subjects.

There are some basic underlying assumptions that need to be clarified, as well, before ever the edu-technological interventions could actually be properly evaluated.

Underlying adaptive personalized learning systems are algorithms—analyses driving programs to serve content that increases the likelihood of reaching a desired end goal. But which goals are being encoded in the design of personalized learning systems? Multiple goals are described in marketing materials (e.g., improved scores on quizzes or preparation for Common Core), yet optimizing for multiple goals is ineffective. It is currently unclear from descriptions of personalized learning  systems, what goals each are optimizing for, and how they are differentiating between interim goals (e.g., testing to represent mastery) and larger end goals (progressing to the next grade level).

There are other questions — student privacy is a big one — still wide open.  One of the biggest is, as always, equity — what resources will get diverted to make the massive investments that the new vision will require?  What human or other resources will be reduced or eliminated,  in these times of austerity thinking, to make the investments possible? What outcomes will we watch for, and which will we not know to measure, until after we’re already committed to surfing the new wave?

No doubt one or another aspect of this newly favored approach is taking shape near you.  How does it look?  What difference is it making in policy, in teaching, in students’ experience, in actual learning?

Because there is so little research on many aspects of Personalized Learning, some of the most interesting thinking is to be found in the gray literature, the world of reports, presentations — and blogs:  the hunting ground of the Bloghaunter.

Note:  Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer alone, and are not to be attributed to MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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This blog post has 9 comments, showing all.

A Guide to Digital Content

posted by: Sara Silver on 3/20/2017 4:48 pm

Brian, not sure if this resource belongs in this discussion string. You make frequent reference to technology. It just doesn't go away, does it?
Here is the link: sing_Digital.pdf

I think this publication offers some probing questions for shifting mindset, how to recognize good digital content, evaluating fidelity of implementation, and how to move a culture forward.

I'd be curious as to how it is received. Cheers.

Edweek Guide

posted by: Brian Drayton on 3/22/2017 5:26 am

Thanks,for this, Sara. As you say, it contains some good advice for districts deciding to make a major investment in digital technology, and I like that it takes a systemic approach, and provides some interesting concrete examples of school systems experimenting with "going digital." I also appreciate their differentiation of "digital content" from "digital curriculum."

As I read this documnet, however, I had the following reflections, in the light of my blog post.

"Technology" (that is, digital technology) is certainly not going away. Nor should it. I work in a place one of whose core commitments is the intelligent integration of technology into the STEM classroom. It's because of 30 years' experience in this environment that I am uneasy (at least) at the extent that techology use is being driven by market forces and created needs, with the active collaboration of government agencies and other organizations whose solutions ignore major portions of the problems they are purporting to solve.
Even this very useful guide shows evidence of the hard sell. Leave aside the "anytime anywhere" stuff, which is always in such documents.
This Guide is"sponsored" by a long list of ed tech businesses, as is common for publications from the CDE.
The Center for Digital Education is dedicated to the notion that the education of the future will be digitally delivered, and so even pieces like its document on "The Active Learning Continuum" ( 28.html?promo_code=CDE_web_library_list) assumes that if active learning requires extensive use of electronics. The research they cite is based on surveys, whose results are not given, and in any case don't provide any depth about the realities on the ground. Their cost accounting raises questions -- in their example, buying 7the grade algebra textbooks will cost their example district %50,000, while the ideal leased digital replacement "solution" will cost $42,000, which is described as a great savings. But this leaves aside teacher PD, not to mention the expense of creating and maintaining the system (including student and teacher devices, tech support, network capability, etc. ), The local savings on algebra is embedded in a very large global expenditure -- of the sort that some districts, with state or federal help, will be able to make, but have a much harder time maintaining, given that we seem to be in an austerity mindset in this country when it comes to things like education and other basic human needs.
Moreover, there is more or less obvious language about how the classrooms they advocate represent the workplace and society of the future. I encourage readers to spend some time with the Bureau of Labor Statistics job projections for the next decade -- you can see a handy chart at, and then revisit some of these reports with concrete workplaces in mind.
I take it as a axiom that everybody should be encouraged to learn throughout their lives (and this is not a new idea), and the more we can support that in schools, the better. (It's one of the powerful lessons embodied in the idea of public libraries.)
But given the actual diversity of people's life trajectories, we need to think carefully about how to invest our resources with actual people in mind. In some cases, that could definittely include some or a lot of digital resources, no question; and people are inventive and curious, so that people of all kinds will find ways to use all kinds of tools for their purposes, and there will be changes - as there always have been. I just want actual educational values to guide the process in each case.


posted by: Betsy Stefany on 3/29/2017 1:05 pm

I've very glad to have this resource! I'm wondering if you could point me to a logic model that describes the transition between classroom to community and the activities of adding in the Dept of Labor influences to educational pathways.

In 2008 I worked on crosswalking the CTE competencies with NH Science Education Framework which led into the MSP from 2009-2014.I have a logic model for adding in OER to community and creating a visual for the steps we are involved with now.
Anyone able to point me to a visual to compare with what I have drawn?

personalized instruction - so called

posted by: Amy Cohen on 3/21/2017 9:03 am

Strange how often we see suggestions that kids should sit in front of monitors and do what the machine tells them based on what the machine (really its programmer) thinks the kids should be thinking about and learning to do. And strange how often these suggestions come from folks with a financial interest in selling the machines and the programs. Then we don't need educated warm-hearted inspirational teachers, just cheap monitors to keep the kids at their desks.

And on the other side we see lots of calls for 'soft skills" communication, teamwork, reliability, creativity, etc.

The researchers will have a hard time with this Dept of Ed to get money for objective research and honest reporting.

Finally, how many of these computer jock educational theorists have had to admit that education is more complicated than they thought before? Zuckerberg (sp?) Gates etc Sorry, but as a Vermonter by adoption, I distrust the know-it-alls.

knowing it all

posted by: Brian Drayton on 3/22/2017 5:37 am

I don't mind enthusiasts, and I am not screen-phobic, but when so many people's lives are touched by a change that is introduced intentionally, it'd be great to be able to assure parents and kids and people in general,
"This works; this is HOW it works. This is HOW WELL it works, UNDER WHICH CONDITIONS." And even "It improves on the alternatives in THIS WAY and also may have THESE unintended consequences (for student or system)."
New drugs supposedly must satisfy most of these claims before being introduced into general use. Educational interventions affect the mind/body, just as medications do, and often with life-long consequences. We can't calibrate doses, and education like most social processes is too complicated for a biochemical-type assay, but some evidence that 's not just hopeful anecdotes is always appreciated.

Human Subjects

posted by: Steven Rogg on 3/24/2017 4:32 pm


The analogy of educational interventions with drug trials is useful, I agree. It had haunted me during the NSF Systemic Initiatives (State-, Urban-, Rural-). At that time there had been a significant investment in research and program evaluation (WCER; HRI, Inc.; Systemic Research, Inc.; etc.) and a great volume of data and reports were produced in response to at least some of the questions you noted. What came of it all? I can't say with confidence that the viral RNA was adequately inserted and integrated into the DNA of current practice. Perhaps?

Anyway, it was during that time when I enjoyed an unforgettably copacetic summer walk on Miami University's campus with Prof. Arnold Arons (late), Professor of Physics, Washington State University. He described for me early work in CA with AI and computer-assisted instruction in relationship to the cognitive change ideas developing from the Physics by Inquiry project. To paraphrase what he might say today, Siri will never quiet respond to cognitive dissonance as can a capable adult. Today, as I an up to my neck in personalized learning (and all the bells and whistles), I remind myself to focus first on purpose, and only then select tools accordingly. I hope my pharmacist and physician would do the same. Better tools can help, no doubt, in the hands of a skilled artisan. Otherwise, not so much.

Furthermore, as "thought surgeons" educators really should be compensated at least at the level of neurosurgeons.

With gratitude for your salient insight, and for evoking a fond memory.

I don't mind enthusiasts, and I am not screen-phobic, but when so many people's lives are touched by a change that is introduced intentionally, it'd be great to be able to assure parents and kids and people in general,
"This works; this is HOW it works. This is HOW WELL it works, UNDER WHICH CONDITIONS." And even "It improves on the alternatives in THIS WAY and also may have THESE unintended consequences (for student or system)."
New drugs supposedly must satisfy most of these claims before being introduced into general use. Educational interventions affect the mind/body, just as medications do, and often with life-long consequences. We can't calibrate doses, and education like most social processes is too complicated for a biochemical-type assay, but some evidence that 's not just hopeful anecdotes is always appreciated.

Systemic change strategies

posted by: Brian Drayton on 3/27/2017 12:53 pm

I appreciate your reflections, and especially the reminder of the systemic initiatives which despite their drawbacks were a remarkable enterprise. Their recognition, at least in principle, that we are dealing with complex systems, with both designed and emergent characteristics and consequences, could have been better used in subsequent years to build up increasingly coherent, robust and flexible cultures of learning and teaching (and administering) practice. There were many failings or weak points in the model - but it was rich enough to keep refining, I think. The expectation of mutual learning across projects, and from program to program over the years, was a valuable one, as well, whose benefits would only grow with time.
In those days, I heard a lot of conversation about the processes of learning and teaching, and of teacher learning, and less about "outcomes" - outcomes are important, but there was a lot of attention to the operations in the "black box" (to use Paul Black's phrase) between "educational inputs" and "outcomes."

Stakeholders as Personalized Learners

posted by: Betsy Stefany on 3/29/2017 1:16 pm

I agree with you that some care should be taken as not all who are impacted are even close to the points where technology is driving of education as it seeks to fulfill both local and national expectations with digital integration and access.

I truly appreciate the resources that are added as focus for these discussions. The practice of shared focus on a caliber resource alleviates the tension of writing from different perspectives and enables the variation of views to broaden our own individual perspectives within this huge subject of digital integration. It does, however, take some personal discipline to keep up with all that's offered! Just catching up some....

The Center for Digital Education's article, The Path to Digital Transformation, summarizes elements of the transition between traditional design and digital that is vital to consider, yet often left unstated.
The form and design of digital is more than a sum of media parts and they do a fine job making that leap in their design. The challenge usually with programs is to find the entry that best leads future users of all learning levels into a transition that they can manage while learning to evaluate how it supports their objectives. In
lots of informal learning, my perception is that objectives are critical while goals are visionary horizons.

We have expected that it is the teachers who need to be first to dive into the pool, however all of us are finding our applications and are in varied levels of transition. The Center's initial statement set a different tone and examining the broad process of integration.

"Digital curriculum can certainly be more engaging to students than print curriculum; however, in many instances it can also be difficult for districts to review and select proper digital resources. In the print review process, publishers bring samples for teachers to review over a period of weeks. In the digital review process, publishers offer demo accounts but reviewers don't always see the fully functioning tools." In the digital review process, they can see a sample account but not necessarily how the tool integrates with enterprise systems or other software."
Best yet, the design of the article practices the art of bridging publishing designs, leading readers deeper as they build in terms, further questions and on to an Appendix for branching out with their structure.

Does something like their guide exist for working with digital tool integration?

Larry Cuban's "continuum of personalized education"

posted by: Brian Drayton on 4/10/2017 1:31 pm

A deliberately even-handed taxonomy - check it out. d-learning-first-draft/