Personalized Learning: Benefits and Pitfalls

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Written by Ana C. Rold

From kindergarten to lifelong learning, the education sector has experienced radical change at an unprecedented rate. At the forefront of this change is the concept of personalized learning—the idea that learning should be individually tailored to each student’s needs, strengths, and interests in order to help each student learn at a deeper level.

Indeed, with personalized learning, the education system has moved away from the traditional approach of what to learn and instead focus on how to learn, helping students tune into elements such as complex reasoning, creativity, problem solving, and adaptability—all crucial skills needed to survive in today’s (and future’s) job market.

Despite the optimism around personalized learning, the lack of any truly scalable models means this is somewhat unrealistic. However, with interest from the private and public sectors, more large-scale experiments are being conducted and data being collected that may be able to bring us closer to a successful and scalable form of personalized learning.

In fact, several large-scale educational initiatives are already well on their way to discovering the benefits of personalized learning. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, launched two massive initiatives in 2014—the Next Generation Systems initiative and the Next Generation Learning Challenge Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools initiative—in order to fund several districts and regional partners tasked with the goal of designing, launching and replicating new personalized school models. While these programs are still in their early stages, the Center on Reinventing Public Education recently conducted observations throughout participating districts and found that personalized learning had strong support across the board, and that work was well under way to create truly innovative experimental personalized learning models.

Despite this strong interest, however, the Center on Reinventing Public Education also found that little progress had actually been made in terms of valid personalized learning models, mostly due to one major challenge: teachers were left to innovate new approaches on their own, but were most often lacked the necessary tools and support to bring their innovations to scale. Innovating within a staunch system not designed to support innovation demonstrates how difficult creating successful personalized learning models is without first being supported by a flexible education system, and how challenging it will be to scale up these innovations. In order to figure out how to bring personalized learning to schools nationwide, districts need to allow room for more flexibility in their systems and assist leaders and teachers in analyzing exactly what issues are preventing personalized learning models from working, and how these issues can best be fixed.

Despite progress being slow in terms of a system-wide approach, the implementation of new technologies in classrooms—especially artificial intelligence and machine learning—is already leading to dramatic progress in schools around the world. Start-up company Smart Sparrow’s adaptive learning technology is one such example. With lessons being created using rich interactive content that provides intelligent feedback based on the technology’s interactions with students—much like a personal tutor—Smart Sparrow can provide students with individualized reports that reveal their strengths and where they show improvement, and change the course based on these needs. Additionally, this adaptive learning technology can also send student attainment analytics to teachers who can then further assist students. In fact, one mechanics-based course using the technology saw its failure rate drop from 30 percent to less than 7 percent, as well as an overall increase in mastery by students across the board. By blending a traditional classroom approach with new AI-based technology, personalized learning can lead to real positive outcomes.

In addition to artificial intelligence technologies, the increasing use of computers, tablets and other handheld electronic devices not only provides access to adaptive learning software in all areas from math to science to language arts, but also provides students access to Google’s search engine and other immense databases. With a near unlimited access to information, then, the role of teachers in the classroom is beginning to shift away from the traditional approach of relaying information to students to enabling them with the creativity, innovation, and critical thinking skills necessary to gather information on their own and apply this learning in meaningful ways.

In fact, the popularization of virtual classrooms and online courses has made physical settings more of an amenity and less of a necessity. With virtual classrooms, students can be accommodated at once, and with more flexibility in terms of time and place. Students from all over the world can tune into the same course at any time or even record a class to listen to it later. While it can be argued that such a virtual approach lacks the interpersonal connection necessary to facilitate true deep learning, most schools are adapting a blended learning approach where students meet both in a physical classroom as well as online in order to obtain more personalized support from teachers while also being able to take advantage of the flexibility that virtual learning provides.

Ultimately, while the biggest pitfall to personalized learning is its current lack of applicability in today’s traditional educational atmosphere, it is only a matter of time before technology and human innovation enables personalized learning to be applied at scale in a way that allows students from around the world to learn in ways best suited to their individual learning style. With lifelong learning becoming crucial to nearly every job around the world today, the skills emphasized in personalized learning—such as creativity, innovation, self-direction, and complex reasoning—will allow workers of the future to learn at a deeper level than ever, before starting from primary school and continuing on throughout life.

About the author:  Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier, a Global Affairs Media Network. She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.