If you’re confused by the term “personalized” these days, you’re in good company. A mainstay of ed-tech marketing language, “personalized” has been applied so broadly that it hardly means anything. Yet, recent developments are helping educators renew their understanding of the term for a new age.

For NASSP’s part, personalization has been a central tenet of Breaking Ranks: The Comprehensive Framework for School Improvement since its 1996 launch.

The Breaking Ranks framework is designed to improve student performance by making learning personal—by helping schools build better relationships within the school, opening the door to learning, and helping students build a more productive and profound relationship with ideas.

The rise of digital technologies in education promised to help build those productive and profound relationships. But the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era—which tended to further regulate education initiatives—altered our common understanding of the term “personalization.”

By reducing a student to a standardized test grade, NCLB sparked the growth of a cottage industry that could efficiently adapt content delivery to the individual student’s current level of performance. These adaptive and individualized technologies would soon appropriate the term “personalized,” although they did little to recognize a sentient person at the other end of the transaction with unique interests and aspirations. 

In his ebook Why School?, digital learning expert Will Richardson labels this crucial dichotomy as one of delivery vs. discovery. In the corporate reform agenda, Richardson explains, “Technology is a tool to better deliver content. In this view, we focus on the easiest parts of the learning interaction—information acquisition, basic skills, a bit of critical thinking, analysis—accomplishments that can be easily identified and scored. Learning is relegated to the quantifiable: that which is easy to rank and compare.” The discovery model, however, resonates more closely to the Breaking Ranks definition of personalization. It recognizes that we all have access to knowledge in abundance, and so instead “focuses on preparing students to be learners, above all, who can successfully wield the abundance at their fingertips. It’s about asking questions, working with others to find the answers, doing real work for real audiences, and adding to, not simply taking from, the storehouse of knowledge that the Web is becoming.

“Fortunately, the educational technology pendulum is beginning to swing toward a more genuinely personalized, inquiry-based emphasis, due in part to the success of innovative programs like Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, which is being featured as an Ignite ’16 Showcase School, and those led by the NASSP Digital Principals and a growing community of connected educators. In examining many of these models, a group of large foundations and education technology advocates proposed a four-part working definition of personalized learning as a student-centered enterprise:

    • Competency-Based Progression. Each student’s progress toward clearly defined goals is continually assessed. A student advances and earns credit as soon as he/she demonstrates mastery.
    • Flexible Learning Environments. Student needs drive the design of the learning environment. All operational elements-staffing plans, space utilization, and time allocation-respond and adapt to support students in achieving their goals.
    • Personal Learning Paths. All students are held to clear, high expectations, but each student follows a customized path that responds and adapts based on his or her individual learning progress, motivations, and goals.
    • Learner Profiles. Each student has an up-to-date record of his or her individual strengths, needs, motivations, and goals.

While the language of “progression through content” persists, the definition takes into account a student’s strengths, needs, motivations, and goals, and gives a nod to the importance of students designing their own learning paths and learning environments. Already we have seen these elements represented in the array of blended learning models becoming pervasive in schools. (See Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker’s book Blended for a complete treatment.)

So, the good news for educators? The personalization fog is beginning to lift. And while the work itself remains a noble challenge, we are at least getting closer to discussing it in common terms.

Sidebar: Building Blocks for Blended Learning

Blended learning involves combining online instruction with face-to-face interaction. But what’s the most effective way to make blended learning successful? Take a look at these tips offered by Heather Wolpert-Gawron, an award-winning middle school teacher, blogger, and author of Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas.

  1. Your first class should always be face to face, or at least real-time. Having an initial face-to-face introduction class helps to set the expectations for the class and put a face to your teacher and classmates.
  2. Assessments should be real-time and the choice of face-to-face or online should be made available. For those big assessments, there should be an actual location where local students can attend.
  3. There must be multiple times throughout the class that are synchronously conducted. While there may be many conversations happening asynchronously (threads going on, assignments analyzed, and feedback given at wacky hours of the day and night), there also must be “class times” where students are sent a link and must attend the real-time conversation between classmates and teacher.
  4. Differentiate content delivery and discussion methods. Watching a PowerPoint presentation on your own time might work for some students, but other online learners need real-time question-and-answer sessions.
  5. Keep class size limited. Don’t let online learning supporters affect educational quality; class sizes cannot be larger in a distance-learning environment than a real-time classroom. Quality will be affected.

Bob Farrace is the director of public affairs at NASSP.