On a road with a sign "Learning" pointing in a variety of directions.

Personalized Learning

Alan Harnum

Inclusive Design Research Centre (OCAD University)

What is Personalized Learning?

The DIAGRAM Report has covered personalized learning previously in both 2017 Personalized Learning Technology for Education and 2018 Personalized Learning chapters. This chapter updates and supplements the content of those previous years, with a focus on recent developments.

Personalized learning is a broad term that lacks a precise definition or agreement on essential practices (Pane, 2018). The general concept involves customizing instruction for the learner, a longstanding educational practice and a familiar one for students with disabilities in particular. “Educators have been trying to personalize what they’re doing in the classroom with kids for centuries, if not longer,” says Beth Rabbitt of The Learning Accelerator (Herold & Molnar, 2018).

The difference in recent decades has been the rise of educational technology that has offered the possibility of scaling personalized learning and supporting teachers and students in using personalized strategies. In recent years, the potential around technologies such as machine learning and big data analytics to support personalized learning has been heavily discussed.

Recently, there have also been criticisms of technology-supported, personalized learning regarding effectiveness, student privacy, and teacher control (Kucirkova, 2018; Ravitch, 2017). It has also been criticized as a potentially meaningless marketing term (Herold & Molnar, 2018) and as having the potential to promote “hyper-individualized, industrialized personalization” that dehumanizes and isolates (Merich, 2018). In 2018, a number of stories emerged of parents and students rejecting personalized learning technology (Melendez, 2018; Tabor, 2018).

But even criticisms often acknowledge the potential theoretical and practical value of approaches that can meet learners where they are and involve them in shaping their educational direction, even while expressing reservations for current models and technologies. Given these challenges and criticisms, paired with genuine potential, this chapter attempts to provide a balanced approach to thinking critically about personalized learning.

Why is Personalized Learning Important?

“We live in a time of increasing personalization. This is particularly visible online-Internet searches, product recommendations, and advertisements are all routinely tailored to each unique user… Personalization is supporting new visions for education as well. Many are seeking to move beyond traditional one-size-fits-all approaches to schooling in efforts to address persistent educational challenges. The emergence of a new generation of educational technologies is at the center of multiple approaches to personalization, providing new possibilities as well as new challenges.”(Bienkowski & Shear, 2018).

For students with disabilities, the concept of personalization embodied by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) in the United States is a longstanding one. Modern technology-supported personalization of education as a widespread trend has emerged with a heavy influence from web-based personalization in e-commerce, social media, and other areas.

The recent (Center on Reinventing Public Education report,2018) on the personalized learning initiatives sponsored by the Gates Foundation found “a familiar pattern of promising practices struggling to replicate at scale across systems” (Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2018). Questions of scaling and replicating personalized learning successes past the pilot phase occurs frequently in current discussions.

These questions also point to possible tensions and contradictory impulses in current approaches. Personalized and individualized education evoke an ideal of one size fits one learning, but “scaling up” is a metaphor of mass production in line with the criticized “one size fits all” approach of standardized education.

As the topic of personalized learning is studied more seriously and various pilot projects show success in some areas and limitations in others, we have to revisit some of the assumptions about the maturity and potential of the technologies involved and increase our emphasis and attention to the human factors (students, parents, and educators) and their specific contexts. How do we do this while still harnessing the potential of technology to assist us in personalization of learning?

Who is Doing It Already?

Previous DIAGRAM Center reports have highlighted technologies that support personalized learning; the last year has seen the completion of several larger studies on efforts towards supporting personalized learning and supporting some emerging consensus on the state and potential of personalized learning in the field rather than in theory.

How Can It Be Used in the Classroom?

“Personalized learning is an approach to a school’s pedagogical strategy for optimizing supports for each student, drawing on research about learning, motivation and engagement. Schools that personalize learning call on students to be active co-constructors, making choices in how they learn, co-creating their learning experiences and pathways through learning, progressing through content as they demonstrate competence, and engaging in their communities outside the school. This approach stands in contrast to prior expectations that all students should progress along a set curriculum at roughly the same pace, and it significantly advances more recent differentiation work by placing student agency at the center of the process” (Gross et al., 2018).

Common threads between the various larger studies can help us chart potential directions for personalized learning in the classroom. In particular, we note these points:

  • The need for education and professional development of everyone involved in implementing personalized learning, from teachers to principals. Many studies have noted less than optimal outcomes due to lack of sufficient support in the theory, practice, and technology of personalized education.
  • “Teachers were tasked with innovating but didn’t have the strategies or supports they needed to successfully innovate. In the end, the early stage challenges we observed in the initiatives reflect what happens when educators try to innovate-that is, discover ideas, procedures, and processes that are new to their school and use them-in systems and conditions that were not designed to support innovation” (Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2018).
  • The need to take care when choosing and using technology to support personalized education to avoid hyper-individuation and excessive screen time that can cause students to lose out on the social learning aspects of education.
    • “Practitioners must look beyond surface descriptions of a product and make informed decisions about which personalized learning approaches are appropriate for their students’ specific needs” (Bienkowski & Shear, 2018).
  • The requirement for administrative reform in order to support, scale and evolve personalized learning. Tensions were noted to exist between personalized learning and emphasis on areas like standardized testing and set curriculum.

  • Challenges and Opportunities for Students with Disabilities

    “…Those seeking to implement blended learning should pay particular attention to the ways in which technology is being offered and used by students, and care should be taken to avoid the creation of new, isolating learning environments that can either amplify or create feelings of disengagement among students and teachers” (Mohammed, 2017).

    Best practices in education for students with disabilities has long been associated with the personalization of learning resources and structures. Technology-supported personalized learning would seem a natural fit for students with disabilities, but the real-world outlook is more mixed.

    Prior reports have noted challenges around content in three areas:

    • 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.

    Technology-rich activities including personalized learning have also been associated with isolation from peers, already an issue for many students with disabilities. Questions around issues of technology usage, effectiveness and privacy have led recently to what has been characterized as backlash around personalized learning (Schaffhauser, 2019).

    Amidst the overwhelming volume of information, speculation, and marketing around personalized learning, what seems clear is that the concept has strong potential but also has a varied track record, and technology alone is not enough to effectively apply personalized learning.

    George Kerscher, Chief Innovations Officer of the DAISY Consortium comments:

    “Modern digital books can provide wonderful opportunities to personalize the reading experience. All students can personalize the visual presentation by adjusting background and foreground colors, fonts, line length and spacing. This can be very helpful to a wide range of students, and, of course, save the settings so they become the default preference. In addition, many reading apps now provide the read aloud feature which has the text read to the person using a TTS engine while highlighting the text. It is important to note that this can be a significant tool in learning to read effectively.” See the chapter on multimodal interfaces for an in-depth discussion.

    Case Studies or Examples of What is Being Done for Special Populations

    Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School

    In New York City, Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School “has developed a reputation for serving children with learning disabilities, in part because of its commitment to personalizing learning” (Mathewson, 2019). Along with a focus on small group instruction and mastery, systems originally built for the five-year-old school have resulted in Cortex, “a next-gen integrated student information and learning management system” designed for personalized learning.

    “Many enter in sixth grade performing years behind grade level. By the end of middle school, though, they’re doing better than their peers in District 13. And that’s despite the fact that nearly 30 percent of Brooklyn Lab’s students have disabilities that qualify them for special education services – double the portion of students in District 13 who do” (Mathewson, 2019).

    LEAP Innovations

    In Chicago, the nonprofit LEAP Innovations has been working since 2014 to support schools in implementing personalized learning suited to their particular context. These include schools like Intrinsic Schools with a substantial population (16%) of students with special education needs (Vander Ark & Liebtag, 2017).

    Reports from second pilot year have shown promising results in literacy testing:

    “This report outlines the results and learnings from LEAP’s second year of piloting (2015-2016). These results show an even more promising direction in literacy: students in the Pilot Network gained an average of 2.94 additional test-score points over the comparison group. Put another way, a typical student using a reading product in the Pilot Network would gain 13 additional percentile points above a typical comparison student starting with the same score (i.e., 50th percentile to the 63rd percentile).”(LEAP Innovations, 2018a).

    LEAP’s summary of the report notes that “the analysis controlled for student characteristics such as grade, gender, race, free/reduced price lunch status, special education status, English language learner status, and prior test score.”

    The less promising reported results around personalized learning mathematics reinforces that much research remains to be done in terms of understanding what works best in personalized learning:

    “The 2015-2016 school year was LEAP’s first year piloting math products. These results were more mixed, showing no significant difference between Pilot Network students and the control group. LEAP is now examining the individual math pilot implementations to see what they can learn to inform future work” (LEAP Innovations, 2018a).

    Conclusions/Actions for Parents, Educators, and Students


    “For students to take advantage of learning opportunities in personalized environments, they need to be self-determined (have the capacity to make active choices about one’s learning and life) and be able to self-advocate (understand and communicate their rights and needs). These are capabilities and skills that students with disabilities need, but often lack. And these are the very skills that personalized learning draw on in classrooms every day as students are offered choice and agency in their learning” (Parsi & Schlichtmann, 2018).

    • Advocate, communicate and know your rights – 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. Be aware of your rights to accommodation in education, including in personalized learning.
    • 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.


    “Personalized learning isn’t about flexible seating, flipped lessons, or technology. It’s about creating environments in which learning is focused on, demonstrated by, and led by the learner. It’s about creating experiences that connect learning to students’ communities and cultures” (LEAP Innovations, 2018b).

    • Define the challenges and opportunities – Since personalized learning has such varying definitions, make sure you share an agreed working definition within your particular context (school, district, etc.).
    • Assess the technology involved with care – The popularity of personalized learning as a concept has resulted in widespread (and arguably not always applicable) usage in the educational technology market.
    • Research personalized learning – Learn from the past few years of research into personalized learning. Make sure to factor in professional development time for teachers and other educators to learn the philosophy, techniques and tools of personalized learning.
    • 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.

    Assessing Educational Technology

    While personalized learning is the focus, it’s important for teachers to ask some guiding questions when thinking about introducing any new technology 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.

    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 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.

    Additional Resources

    Students with Disabilities and Personalized Learning

    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.

    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.

    Research on Personalized Learning

    Personalized Learning and the Digital Privatization of Curriculum and Teaching: This 2019 report from the National Education Policy Center is highly critical of the history and current state of personalized learning, recommending a pause on implementation in schools until better review and oversight is established.

    Personalized Learning at a Crossroads is a 2018 report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education on two Gates Foundation-supported initiatives around personalized learning. In particular, it discusses the challenge of widespread adoption of personalized learning and the changed classroom practices going along with it without larger structural reform.

    The Personalized Learning Toolkit from EdSurge is a 2017 collection of articles on frameworks, tools and stories related to personalized learning.

    Using Technology to Personalize Learning in K-12 Schools is a 2018 research report from SRI International that focuses on some of the technologies used to support personalized learning.


    Published: 2019-08-31

    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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