Personalized Learning

Lisa Wadors Verne
Senior Program Manager: Education Research and Partnerships


Charles LaPierre
Technical Lead: DIAGRAM and Born Accessible

What Is Personalized Learning?

Personalized learning (PL), also referred to as individualized instruction, student-centered learning, and adaptive learning (Glossary of Educational Reform, 2015), seeks to tailor education to meet the different needs of each student. It involves targeted instruction, data-driven decisions, flexible content, and student reflection and ownership. “It lets students choose where, what, how, and when they learn, thus providing flexibility to ensure mastery of the educational content” (Abel, 2016). Personalized learning is not a new concept. In fact, educators have been developing instructional models for personalized learning for over forty years. What makes it special in this day and age is the technology available to assist in developing these models. Adaptive technology platforms can be used to automate and scale the individualization process to tailor the learning experience for each student. With the increase in the use of data and predictive analytics, educators now have tools to more easily customize and personalize learning experiences in ways that are not possible using traditional printed materials alone. For those of you who have read the Multimodal and/or Artificial Intelligence chapters, it should be noted that those types of technologies can be used to personalize the learning opportunities for students as well. This chapter will focus on the availability and usability of personalized learning technology and its potential impact on students, especially those with disabilities.


Why is Personalized Learning Important?

Now, like never before, the availability of materials through digital learning environments provides educators access to a wide range of proven curricular approaches as well as engaging presentations of the worlds’ knowledge. This allows them to address a key principle that special educators have known for years – learners and their needs vary and for children with disabilities, often even more so. Indeed, in order to learn the same material as their peers, students with disabilities often need subject matter presented through different methods, via modifications (Digital Promise, 2017) and/or accompanied by assistive technology.

Summit Learning estimates that more than 113 schools are already using tools for personalized learning and seeing improvements. “Last year, 74% of Summit students met or exceeded Common Core standards for English Language Arts on California’s state tests, compared to 49% of students statewide. For math, 51% of Summit students met or exceeded the standards, compared to 37% statewide” (Berdik, 2017). One can infer from this that students perform better academically when subject matter is tailored to their learning styles and abilities.

On the policy side, we have seen a shift away from “student access to curriculum” and toward “degree completion” (LeBlanc, 2015). Higher education institutions are required to track and measure program completion and gainful employment to secure base funding, and grants are often tied to student outcomes. This means that students who have traditionally fallen through the cracks and failed must have support and flexibility to improve their opportunities beyond graduation. Both the Higher Education Opportunity Act (2008) and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 support “flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways the students are engaged” (Center for Online Learning, 2016, p90). In other words, according to the U.S. government, students should have access to personalized learning mechanisms.

The key takeaway here is that personalized learning is important because it’s the best way to meet the needs of students regardless of learning styles or special needs. Additionally, through the use of personalized learning platforms, teachers are able to gather information about how their students learn and create individual profiles that identify and address their students’ learning styles and personal interests. The challenge is to figure out the method of implementing personalized learning that is the most doable for educators and effective for students.


How Is Personalized Learning Technology Applied in Education?

Today’s teachers are faced with very diverse learners. General education classrooms are a mix of students who are English-language learners, learners with disabilities, students with different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and all of them have different strengths and weaknesses that make teaching both exciting and complex (Voltz et al., 2010). “Most students are either ahead of or behind the average learning rate” (Feldstein, 2017). Thus, it makes perfect sense why there is a push for personalized learning in our schools. It is a well-intentioned response to the variation of students trying to learn standardized curriculum through instructional practices that often date back to the last century.

Teachers have to find the right path to support all of their students, and personalization can be an effective choice. It provides instructional experiences tailored to each learner’s preferences and interests at a pace appropriate to their needs. When done correctly it can truly have transformative effects on the learning of all students.

As of now, more than 40 states have adopted some sort of policy to advance personalized learning, ranging from pilot programs and waivers to broader policy changes (NCLD, 2017). None of these policies look exactly alike and none would define the notion of personalized learning in exactly the same way. One might even say they personalized their approach to personalized learning.

For those considering how they might begin to personalize the learning experience, it can help to utilize different types of technology. Technology using speech recognition mechanisms, for example, can be a way to personalize learning for students with many different types of disabilities. Speech recognition also known as automatic speech recognition (ASR), computer speech recognition, or just speech to text (STT), is the process of converting human speech into text that a computer can understand and act upon. In other words, speech recognition allows a user to verbally speak to a computer instead of typing.

For some people with physical or learning disabilities, processing disorders, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), having the ability to dictate their thoughts into a computer will help them demonstrate what they actually know without getting caught up in the mechanics of writing. For example, students with learning disabilities often struggle with writing and spelling tasks. While speech recognition software will not improve students’ spelling, it can remove barriers that make the writing process difficult (NCIP, 2003). Additionally, speech recognition software speeds up the writing process and can help students with physical limitations or limited hand and motor coordination produce written assignments and navigate web pages (NCIP, 2003). It can also provide increased independence, especially if it includes text-to-speech features in addition to the speech-to-text mechanisms. This combination allows students to hear their text read aloud to them multiple times, providing the opportunity to correct their errors more independently. But again, this is just one of many ways to bring personalization to the learning process.


Stories from the Field

D.J. Bakie Elementary in Kingston, New Hampshire implemented a form of personalized learning called Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL offers students multiple ways to represent, express and engage in learning based on how humans learn. It was introduced into the classroom to help a fourth-grade student diagnosed with an emotional and behavioral disorder who was struggling to get along with peers in group settings and frustrated by “one size fits all” paper-and-pencil tests on subjects he found boring. The teachers at D.J. Bakie introduced different strategies, class-wide accommodations, and learning approaches as part of the UDL curriculum for the student. As a result, the fourth grader, who originally felt despondent and had been difficult for his teachers and peers to work with, gained a better understanding of himself and started to take ownership in his learning. The disturbances decreased and his learning prospects greatly improved. In the process, not only was the student’s learning trajectory transformed, but those of his peers improved as well.

Sherrelwood Elementary School in Denver, Colorado, took a different approach to personalized learning. They had a five-year-old student with developmental delays and a speech and language impairment. His strengths were apparent; his teachers described him as kind, friendly, and resilient, but it was difficult for him to follow multi-step directions, recall information, and express himself verbally. Rather than isolate the student in special education, the teachers took a different, two-pronged approach. For starters, students aren’t all in the same age- and grade-based class for all subjects. Instead, younger and older students work together in a classroom based on their level of competency in a subject. A student may be working on foundational skills in reading and language but excelling with the right supports in math class. The school believes that situations like these should be considered when supporting a student’s learning. The second prong of their approach was to use an interventionist, rather than pulling students out of class to give them specialized instruction. The interventionist went into the classroom and worked with the teachers to design and support instruction for students who might be struggling in a particular area and for those who might be more advanced, helping create educational experiences that meet all students’ different learning needs and interests.

By designing curriculum and facilitating general as well as small group instruction, the five-year-old student was able to master content and develop personal and social competencies essential to his long-term success. As an added benefit, he no longer felt singled out because every student’s instruction was tailored to their unique learning needs, strengths, and interests.



Personalized Learning Tools

When thinking about what tools teachers wish to use to facilitate personalized learning, there are many options and kinds. Below are some examples that highlight the different types available. What follows isn’t an endorsement for a particular brand or tool, but simply a variety of options.

  • Children with autism have a hard time recognizing emotion, so a robot named NAO was programmed to exhibit different emotional states (joy, sadness, anger, and surprise) in the same way each time to help students learn these emotions. Robots are an effective way to teach emotion to students with autism because they don’t get frustrated with the robot as they might with another human because robots will always do exactly the same thing. What makes this research fall under personalization is that the robot can also interpret what the child is feeling by using deep learning artificial intelligent (AI) based on video of the child’s face, audio of the child’s voice, arm and leg movements, and other biometric data collected by a smart watch (temperature, heart rate, etc.) From this data, the robot can estimate what the child is feeling and personalize its response based on the child’s emotional state. Currently, this technology is still in the research stage and is only about 60% accurate, but this is definitely something to watch in the future.
  • Realizeit – is a personalized learning and analytics platform that helps educators create personalized digital learning experiences for their students through curriculum templates and authoring capabilities for course development. It can also be used in conjunction with learning management systems and provides discipline-specific practice activities for students learning computer science, math, and business.
  • Immersive Reader: Microsoft Learning Tools – Microsoft learning tools is a suite of accessibility features compatible with the Microsoft Office Suite for Windows. It has intelligence-enabled capabilities like machine-generated descriptions of pictures; color filters that change the color palette on the screen to help distinguish between things that differ only by color; and eye-tracking technology to control the mouse cursor, type using an on-screen keyboard, and communicate using text-to-speech. The tools are also compatible with voice dictation for authoring and editing documents in Windows, reading and writing email, browsing the internet, and working with documents on a PC without a display or mouse. It can also reduce visual crowding, enable text highlighting and voicing, and break words into syllables.
  • Raz-Plus – is a personalized learning resource aimed at students in pre-K through grade 6 that provides a library of print and digital books, lesson plans, and instructional tools in multiple formats. It includes formative assessments and data-driven reporting to help teachers determine the appropriate reading level for each student, monitor students’ reading growth, and determine future instruction.


Challenges and Benefits

Despite the growing number of digital technologies supporting personalization, some platforms and products are not accessible to students with disabilities. No one platform can serve all students perfectly, and when problems occur, they tend to cluster around three categories of issues: availability of appropriate content, mechanisms to allow control and exchange of content, and the display of content. To expand a little further on these three topics:

  • Lack of availability of appropriate content: A teacher may want to present material with images accompanied by simplified text descriptions to a student with an intellectual disability but is not able to locate materials that meet this need. Teachers may also lack best practices for creating content themselves in the absence of existing material.
  • Lack of mechanisms to control content: Tools sometimes do not let the user adapt content to address special needs without modifying the existing code, which is most often beyond the capabilities of the average student or teacher (Laabidi et al., 2014). Without flexible course builders, teachers cannot customize content for special needs. In addition, without accessible assessment/feedback mechanisms, a student with a physical disability might have difficulty entering answers on tests.
  • Lack of ability to control the display of the content: Some platforms do not allow the user to adjust displays via preference settings; for example, a student with a language processing disability is not able to indicate a preference for slower reading speed or color. In addition, the lack of basic assistive output settings – i.e., text-to-speech output – limits the ability of the student to successfully use the platform.

Another challenge one might encounter when incorporating personalized learning has both positive and negative outcomes. Today’s students learn differently than students in the past (Delic, 2012). They share information using digital and networked devices, which makes them active, not passive learners (Dabbagh and Kitsantas, 2012). As a result, educators are in a unique position to incorporate mainstream technology with educational content to increase the opportunity for meaningful learning experiences. However, some tools gamify and reward user behavior in ways that can be addictive. They create learning environments where children crave “tablet time” and engender a superficial motivation based on the number of points earned or levels achieved. (This method is no better than the antiquated grading systems of the past.) At younger ages, technology even has the potential to stunt executive functioning skills and sensory integration, making it challenging for children to stay regulated and organized as they grow older. (France, 2018)

On the other hand, technology-rich activities have been linked to higher student engagement compared to low-tech, traditional educational activities. Studies show that students are interested in using personal devices for learning (West, 2013). According to a study on personalized learning and personalized devices, students reported that they want their education to adapt to their needs and want to be involved in how and when they learn (Evans, 2017). Personalized learning and personalized learning platforms provide educators with the ability to incorporate this technology into the curriculum to make learning motivating for their students (West, 2013).

Furthermore, students with disabilities often need subject matter presented through different methods or via modifications (Digital Promise, 2017); therefore, it is imperative that these technological advances benefit all students and learning styles. The good news is that the advent of digital materials has brought with its opportunities for students with a range of disabilities to more readily access content that is adapted to accommodate their specific needs. Thanks to innovative platform and content creators, the challenges mentioned above also represent opportunities.


Final Thoughts

For teachers interested in incorporating personalized learning into their lesson planning, it is important to remember that technology can’t be the sole mechanism used. Personalization of learning opportunities must consist of a combination and balance of the appropriate technology or platform along with a skilled educator and thoughtful course design. Below are several things to keep in mind when making a choice about implementing personalized learning.



While personalized learning is the focus, it’s important for teachers to ask some guiding questions when thinking about introducing any new technology into the classroom to increase the likelihood that it will be beneficial.

  • Does the technology help make subjects and concepts less complex?
  • Does the technology have the potential to increase independence and/or learning potential for all students in the classroom?
  • Will the technology make difficult tasks easier, or, better yet, make something that was previously impossible now possible?
  • Will the technology increase human interaction in the classroom, or, at the very least, keep the level of interaction the same?

Answering “yes” or “possibly” to all four of these questions is a strong indicator that the technology being considered could be a good match and a potentially useful tool. If the answer is “no,” then weighing the pros and cons is critical in deciding whether to introduce it to the classroom. What are your deal breakers? What are you hoping to accomplish? It’s important to remember that learning is a human condition, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to facilitate it. Figuring out the way that works best for you and your students is a process. If you decide to add personalized learning into your curricula, here are some additional tips to keep in mind.

  • Keep it simple – make it easy for yourself by choosing a single subject area, class, or even just a single activity to allow your students to tailor to their personal needs. Start small; you can always scale up.
  • Communicate – talk to the parents, talk to your students, find out how those in your class learn best, what they are most interested in, and what makes them anxious. Create surveys or activities that allow students to talk about themselves. The more you know, the better you can design a personalized learning system that will work.
  • Be flexible – instead of being the “sage on the stage” with all the answers, be open-minded. Listen to feedback, adapt your lesson plans if needed, and don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t work. Remember that there is no one right answer for how to teach and how students learn. That’s part of what keeps things interesting and fun. As long as you are willing to try new things you will be able to support the unique needs of your students.


Parents and Guardians:

  • Listen – Find out what motivates your child to learn instead of trying to use good grades as a determinant of academic progress.
  • Talk – Ask your child how she thinks she learns best so you can communicate that to her teacher
  • Stay focused – when talking to your child or your child’s teacher, keep the focus on the process of learning. This could include discussing your child’s interests as well as his or her strengths and weaknesses.
  • Don’t be afraid to be an advocate for your child – you have an opportunity to form relationships with the teachers to make sure you, your child and your child’s teachers all share the same vision, and, most importantly, ensure that the unique needs of your child are being met.
  • Stay open-minded – personalized learning can be a process. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different approaches. If something isn’t working, talk to your child and the teacher about what the three of you can do to improve the process.



  • Communicate – no one knows how you learn better than you do. You are the expert on what you like, what you don’t, how fast you learn, and how you like to access information (e.g., videos, tactiles, or audio files). Your learning plan will work best if the people on your support team know these things as well.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – personalized learning is a process and may take adjustments to perfect it for you. If something isn’t working, or doesn’t make sense, don’t be afraid to speak up. Waiting for grades to post is often too late. Take advantage of the feedback you get on your work, and if you don’t understand certain concepts, let your parent or teacher know. They can work with you individually or find other ways of communicating what you are trying to learn.




Additional Resources:

Personalized Learning: Policy & Practice Recommendations for Meeting the Needs of Students with Disabilities: This 2016 report was developed in conjunction with a national convening hosted by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), drawing together students with disabilities and personalized learning experts to discuss how personalized learning systems can be designed to best support the learning of students with disabilities.

Personalized Learning Meeting the Needs of Students with Disabilities, Key Considerations: This two-page document includes key considerations from research on maximizing the benefits of personalized learning systems for students with disabilities.

Roadmap for Parents and Families This two-page summary includes key considerations on what families can do to seize benefits of personalized learning for their children with disabilities (developed through the support of NCLD’s national convening on meeting the needs of students with disabilities in personalized learning systems).

Roadmap for Educators This two-page summary includes key considerations on what educators can do to seize benefits of personalized learning for students with disabilities (developed through the support of NCLD’s national convening on meeting the needs of students with disabilities in personalized learning systems).

Roadmap for School & District Leaders This two-page summary includes key considerations on what principals and district administrators can do to seize benefits of personalized learning for students with disabilities (developed through the support of NCLD’s national convening on meeting the needs of students with disabilities in personalized learning systems).

Roadmap for Systems Change This two-page summary includes key considerations on what federal, state, and local policy leaders can do to seize benefits of personalized learning for students with disabilities (developed through the support of NCLD’s national convening on meeting the needs of students with disabilities in personalized learning systems).

Agents of Their Own Success: Self-Advocacy Skills and Self-Determination for Students with Disabilities in the Era of Personalized Learning: This report highlights steps students, families, educators, policymakers, and other key stakeholders in our education system can take to ensure all students are equipped with self-advocacy skills and the capacity for self-determination; these elements are critical to their success in personalized learning settings.

Personalized Learning is: Using Digital Content and Tools in a Purposeful Way. Watch this video from a high school teacher where she describes how students use a digital tool to demonstrate their ability to collect and analyze data from a field exercise.

Tool: ThinkLink

Video showing it

Published: 2018-08-31

Ideas that work.The DIAGRAM Center is a Benetech initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (Cooperative Agreement #H327B100001). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U.S. Department of Education.


  Copyright 2019 I Benetech

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