Personalized Learning for a Globalized Job Market


This article is part of a special interview series featuring global innovators in education (part 5 of 5).

We are heading into a world where courses and tools are designed with personalized learning in mind from the beginning,” explained Amar Kumar, Senior Vice President of Efficacy & Research in the Office of the Chief Education Advisor at Pearson. In an interview, we discussed the global education landscape, the future of personalized learning, the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, and much more.

When we talk about the future of education, broadly speaking, what kinds of issues and trends come to mind?

In many parts of the world, classrooms look very similar to the way they looked 100 years ago. All around those classrooms, however, the world is changing very rapidly. The biggest tension faced by our world’s education systems has got to be globalization.

In the middle of the last century, most competition for jobs was local. When you graduated high school, or even college, you were competing with other graduates from your region. A couple of decades ago, that competition became national.

But all that is changing again. Competition for jobs now is increasingly global. A graduate from Dubai might be competing with a graduate from Delhi for the same job with a multi-national firm. Technology makes this more possible than ever. This changes the depth of skills, breadth of knowledge, and cultural context that the education system needs to deliver to every graduate.

And if anyone thinks that this problem isn’t going to reach their shores, just consider two facts. In India, more than a million students enter the workforce every month. In China, there are more honors students than there are students in just about any other country in the world. The quantity and quality of graduates coming out of just those two countries could quickly overwhelm many of the world’s employment markets unless something is done to make those graduates more globally competitive.

In terms of personalized learning, where are we now, and where are we heading?

Personalized learning tools hold great promise for learners around the world. One of the greatest drivers of higher outcomes is individualized instruction, but cost and other practical considerations make this near impossible. Thankfully, technology-driven personalized learning tools are starting to take off in pockets throughout K-12 and higher education. However, they still haven’t been deployed affordably, at scale, and with quality. 

We are heading into a world where courses and tools are designed with personalized learning in mind from the beginning. The tools with the greatest likelihood to succeed will enhance the role of a teacher, rather than replace it. They will provide teachers more student- and concept-level insights at the moment instruction is occurring.

At Pearson, we are investing heavily in digital courseware, products that are founded in the most rigorous research on how learning occurs and will be powerful tools in the hands of an educator. We’re excited about the possibilities!

Tell me a little bit about the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund. Why was it created, and what kind of impact has it had thus far?

Globally, the demand for high-quality and affordable learning has never been higher. However, public school systems have often struggled to keep up with the strain of added students. So while more than 90 percent of the world’s primary age students now have access to education, the learning outcomes as a result of that education—measured as anything from literacy, numeracy, or harder to measure skills—are still shockingly poor.

In the past few decades, the affordable private school sector has been an exciting innovation to help address this problem. These schools provide parents an additional option for their children that often, although not always, delivers better outcomes at lower total cost. 

The Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) finds and scales the best companies in this sector. The Fund also invests in companies that provide tools and services into the public and private sector, as long as it is targeted at the affordable segment.

Thus far, the Fund has invested in 10 companies around the world. Our first investment, Omega Schools, runs dozens of schools and educates thousands of students daily. Our early analysis of Omega’s outcomes shows that it delivers better outcomes at a lower cost than the public system or comparable private schools.

How is Pearson thinking about metrics and measurement as it relates to learning in this new, digital-heavy landscape?

Digital tools certainly make measurement more possible, but they also make it more possible to drown in an ocean of data. 

In 2013, we launched an effort to measure and improve the impact of all our products in a transparent and auditable way. Over time, each and every Pearson product will define its intended outcomes, agree on metrics for measurement, and then measure it using existing information where possible. That research will be used to improve those products and learning overall.

It’s crucial to remember that not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that can be measured matters. Our teams are being vigilant about drawing that distinction carefully.

We are excited about this work because we believe evidence can lead to greater innovation; it can help us distinguish between a novelty and a meaningful tool to aid learning.

Looking ahead, what are two or three challenges or opportunities to increasing access to quality education worldwide?

I see more opportunities than challenges, as there is a growing consensus about the importance of a quality education and how to deliver it.

The first major opportunity is a greater emphasis on outcomes and not inputs. Focusing on the job to be done, rather than who does it or how it’s done helps us move past the old divisions—for example, public versus private or teachers versus technology. More public and private systems are holding themselves accountable for the outcomes and experimenting with inputs to improve those outcomes.

The second major opportunity is in elevating the status of the teaching profession. Despite being one of the toughest jobs in the world, teaching just isn’t as respected as it ought to be. That is slowly changing and more top graduates are entering education as their career of choice. On top of that, better training and professional development opportunities will make the profession even more desirable.

Finally, education technology companies are becoming more sophisticated about how to leverage smarter digital tools in classrooms and to enhance the role of a teacher. While technology has often been promised as a panacea, we might finally be at the point where we irreversibly embed it into the fabric of a learning experience.

About the Innovator

Amar Kumar
Pearson, Senior Vice President, Efficacy & Research, Office of the Chief Education Advisor

Amar Kumar is an educator, an advisor, an investor, and an innovator. His passion for education was ignited as a schoolteacher and school principal in rural India. Supported by a young team of 40 teachers, he improved the education and outcomes at a school of 1,000 children in a matter of months, doing more than what most had achieved in years. That experience led him to Harvard, where he studied disruption and the power of innovation in education. At McKinsey, he advised private and public sector clients on education and system reform. He currently leads Pearson’s corporate transformation to embed efficacy into every single product, coordinating a team of 100 colleagues around the world. Together, they have trained thousands of employees, done hundreds of reviews, and are working with many external partners to make efficacy and learner outcomes a part of the global conversation. In addition to his focus on efficacy, Amar is the head of the global research team and leads some of Pearson’s investments into low-cost schooling in India. Amar has also worked at Eli Lilly, Microsoft, and McKinsey, and studied at Purdue, Oxford, and Harvard Business School.

Employment and Skills Gap, Education Technology, Learning (Blended, Personalized, Formal, Informal), Future of Education, Innovation in Education

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