Why Personalized Learning?

WISE ed.review

This article is part of a series on personalized learning (part 1 of 6).

After his daughter’s birth, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced that they would donate 99% of their Facebook shares to charitable work, including the promotion of personalized learning. Of all the learning "revolutions" out there with shinier names, why personalized learning? Why now?

All decisions are eventually personalized decisions, decisions grounded in an individual’s own encounters. Zuckerberg' decision was probably motivated by his success with personalized learning. Though he has received formal education at Harvard, he dabbled at informal, personalized learning including the learning of Chinese, culminating in the ability to make a speech in Chinese at the Tsinghua University, one of the top universities in China. Students who have followed all the proper educational protocols and procedures, progressing from beginner to intermediate to advanced levels of courses, may not have accomplished as much. Probably with this success story, he becomes interested in creating a new environment for his daughter's generation, teaching them how to fish, or better, creating a different pond for them.

Personalized learning as a concept wasn't discovered yesterday. Nor is it purely western. Confucius was famous for having proposed "teaching to the talent" in his time. In America, John Dewey has cast a long symbolic shadow in which all educational reformers now walk, as they pursue reform to move education closer to students’ real lives, incorporating their individual differences. The realities of education have not lived up to these ideals. In much of the world, education still follows an industrial model in which students enter the educational assembly line in a cohort usually based on age, collectively go through educational “processing” one step at a time, then receive the quality control of tests and certifications, before eventually entering the market of jobs.

There is a growing consensus that this model has its problems. One of the problems is its internal validity, to borrow a term from researchers. Standardized curriculum falls short of what individuals and the society need. The model also has a reliability problem. Children do not learn alike. Grouping them simply by age, and force them to learn at the same group pace will bore some to tears and challenge others to fears. Seat time is no longer much of a predictor of success. The same seat time yields drastically different results. Solutions for these problems are sporadic and anecdotal, waiting to be discovered, analyzed and implemented or repurposed for use on a larger scale.

Pedagogical innovations also converge to make advances in personalized learning possible. Flipped classroom is now widely accepted, leading to greater flexibility among students. Project and problem-based learning are on the rise. Competency-based learning is gaining momentum. All of these are already causing changes in the presentation of educational content, the pathways to learning and the assessment of learning.

There is also an aspect of social equality to the idea of personalized learning. Affluent families can buy their way into customized teaching for their children, while regular folks have to accept what they can access in the public system, hence the moral imperative to work on personalized learning. In the public system, teacher and other educational resources are scarce, compromising effort to customize education based on personal differences. Small classes end up as the second-best choices. Even that is hard to achieve. Education is a subsystem in the larger social eco-system. In China, the shrinking pool of students due to one-child policies in the past few decades have led to decisions to close rural schools with low enrollment, while the remaining schools absorbed the displaced students, leading to even larger classes, especially in less developed areas where educational resources are scarce. 

Technological innovations have also made mass customization of learning possible. Facebook gets this. It pushes personalized information to every user based on searches and posts. Having learned that I am a Chinese, Facebook pushes to me holiday commercial featuring an Asian family making purchases to make aging parents happy. I am also becoming one of these people watching cat videos as I constantly post photos of my pets online to help Facebook learn more about myself. If information about commercial or personal hobbies can be customized, it would only be natural to use data to personalize learning as well.

Personalized learning that Zuckerberg advocates is a loud rallying call for educational reform. I am inspired by it. This type of learning is possible, but not without the joint effort by educators, industry, NGOs and educational administrators. It should not be just an entrepreneur's dream. Learning is one of these areas where narrow silos will never work.

Learning (Blended, Personalized, Formal, Informal), Innovation in Education, Education Technology

Join the Discussion

Erika Twani's picture
Erika Twani
It is a common mistake to mix personalize learning CONTENT/CURRICULUM with personalized learning PROCESS. Personalization of content is to reach the level of the student with the content, but still you are applying the same traditional education: too much focus on curriculum. Personalized learning content is a solution for students to adapt to the curriculum, rather than the system respecting the differences of students. Students have their own way of learning things. When the education system is able to figure that out, then we can personalize the learning PROCESS. That is, students are always relating everything they learn to their reality, their passion, their abilities, their thinking process. A student from one of the schools we serve told me he learned about the digestive system by comparing it to his passion: cars. Another student that has been expelled by four schools before getting to us has great intrinsic motivation to learn now because he relates everything he learns to what he loves: playing Mindcraft. Furthermore, whenever schools implement personalized learning CONTENT, they believe students will be engaged just because of technology. They have no process to develop learning autonomy. Many will say they develop autonomy by personalizing curriculum, which can have its effect in the short term, but I promise you, it will not do anything different in the long term. Today we serve 20,000 public school students in five different countries, all with personalized learning PROCESS. These students are improving reading comprehension by an average of 40% per year, dropout rates are closing zero, and the efficiency ratio is 1.029 compared to 0.36 of the traditional education. Learn more about personalizing learning process on L1to1.org.
reply - Mar 03, 2016
paul loranger's picture
paul loranger
personal learning is existential learning and begins with personal inquiry into self-wisdom from the development of hindsight. It is nurtured by global discussion in becoming insightful as to problems that can be solved once they are understood. In foresight by working in groups, it comes to the realization how they can be solved together and in retrospect or "geosight" a dsicovery of one's own creativity in doing so. www.teacherzones.com
reply - Mar 01, 2016
David Tuttle's picture
David Tuttle
Since 1906 Oxford Academy, a secondary education boarding school in the USA, has been providing college preparatory, personalized instruction to young men ages 13-20. As Sigamoney indicated, there has been little transformation toward more individualized an personalized education, where the curriculum meets a learner where they are, versus the expectation that the learner rise to meet the curriculum at hand, despite the overwhelming research that indicates this is the most effective instructional model to acquire knowledge. It is cost prohibitive to a degree, and that is in large part why many institutions cannot make the shift, but it can be done. As a traditional boarding school, with all the nuts and bolts associated to that concept, we simply offer a non-traditional classroom - all one-to-one education. It is remarkable and highly challenging, but still (even in the USA) often looked at as uniquely different, unusual, and misunderstood. That said, we have a successful model and enjoy sharing with others our success and understanding of how to operationalize the model into a daily structure, as well as how we instruct our students through a very clear pedagogy that is intellectual and stimulating for the learner. If you want to be in touch with us, please do at directorofadmissions@oxfordacademy.net and take a peek at our website at www.oxfordacademy.net
reply - Feb 26, 2016
Phil Cocchiola's picture
Phil Cocchiola
We have been utilizing individualized education for over 100+ years. The rest of the world is just catching up. www.oxfordacademy.net
reply - Feb 24, 2016
Sigamoney Naicker's picture
Sigamoney Naicker
Personalized learning that Zuckerberg advocates is a loud rallying call for educational reform sums up this article. Of course we have not made many advances after the introduction of mass schooling. The diverstiy that characterises learning should be matched by approaches and methodologies. Many people flourish outside the school environment but struggle in school as a result of common approaches that make little sense in a world where diverstiy is a given. I think we need to expand these ideas and explore possiblities for the future.
reply - Feb 23, 2016
suresh's picture
yes sir this forced education system can't produce youth fit for competitive job market.
reply - Feb 04, 2016