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Personalized Learning Initiatives

“The Race to the Top-District competition invites applicants to demonstrate how they can personalize education for all students in their schools.” With nearly 900 Intents to Apply submitted as of late August, school districts across the nation have demonstrated their willingness to adopt personalized learning as a priority. Currently, there are several excellent articles exploring why the Race to the Top Competition Matters. In this post, we aim to clearly define and contextualize “personalized learning” with an emphasis on how it relates to Race to the Top.

Defining Personalized Learning

Despite the prevalence of the term in national conversation, there is not a universally accepted definition of “personalized learning.” Thus, it is often misunderstood and conflated with similar initiatives like individualization or integrating technology. As of yet, the best definition comes from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in their 2010 National Education Technology Plan, “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology” which defines personalized leaning by contrasting it with two kindred concepts, differentiation and individualization. The plan presents the three related concepts as follows:


This concept refers to instruction that is paced to the learning needs of different learners. Learning goals are the same for all students, but students can progress through the material at different speeds according to their learning needs. For example, students might take longer to progress through a given topic, skip topics that cover information they already know, or repeat topics they need more help on.


This concept refers to instruction that is tailored to the learning preferences of different learners. Learning goals are the same for all students, but the method or approach of instruction varies according to the preferences of each student or what research has found works best for students like them. Differentiation focuses on channels of instruction and how changing the mode of a lesson may improve student understanding and engagement.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning refers to instruction that is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary (so personalization encompasses differentiation and individualization).

Effects of Personalized Learning

Although results on student achievement are mixed across classrooms implementing personalized learning and control groups, research suggests that the real effect of personalized learning can only be observed over time by metrics such as subject matter retention. The good news is that there are a few generally agreed-upon practices regarding its implementation: 1) The enhanced role of the educator and 2) The incorporation of Technology.

The Role of the Educator

Personalized learning highlights the important role of educators in strategically guiding instruction. Instructors must design and reinforce an engaging, supportive learning environment that fosters learning among all students. In order to truly implement “personalized learning” as it is currently defined by the ED, educators must now make decisions about pace and modality, all while catering to individual learning preferences. In other words, teachers will spend more time exploring and catering to an important triad: individuation, differentiation, and personalization. Teachers will of course still devote plenty of time to content when designing lesson plans. However, as we move forward, in addition to a firm grounding in appropriate content, lesson plans will expand to include an anticipation of individual student needs for pacing and learning modalities.

The Role of the Technology

Technology can be used to shorten the feedback loop which provides students, parents, and educators with timely information that can be used to create an increased understanding of individual student needs related to differentiation and individuation. Research also suggests that the use of technology in the classroom can better facilitate 21stcentury learning skills. While access to technology like iPads, electronic clickers, and assessment portfolios certainly aid in implementing personalized learning, it is worth noting that the 2010 guidelines laid out by the ED can all be accomplished without the assistance of technology. Although most programs leverage technology to better accomplish these ends, at least one academy does not. At the time of this research, the Academy of Personalized Learning located in California, does not provide students with devices, but does make use of several online course options.