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What does personalized learning mean?

PL 6:28There has been a lot of talk about “personalized learning” as of late, but not a lot of explanation regarding what it actually means. For that matter, there isn’t a ton of agreement about what “personalized” means in the first place – the term implies different things for different people. For many, hearing the word “personalized” evokes visions of services like Amazon, which customize recommendations for us based upon what we buy or watch.

My eight years at Amazon taught me that this concept of personalization works quite well for retail. When companies like this are able to generate a collection of recommendations that are close enough to your interests, you feel as if it is suggesting something that has been hand-picked for you and your specific tastes. But now the question is, can this idea of personalization be applied to education? And could it be effective?

When we were building the first version of our Intelligent Adaptive Learning Engine at DreamBox, we grappled with these very questions. We are all individuals with our own specific sets of knowledge and skills. And, as a result, there are certain areas where we each lack knowledge or understanding, and other areas in which we excel.

The question we really wanted to answer when developing our adaptive learning software was, how do you personalize learning from the first click? And furthermore, how does personalized assessment – the concept that students’ answers to each problem will determine what subsequent problems they are presented with – fit into the equation?

The reality is, if you truly had personalized learning, you wouldn’t need the assessment, because it would have been seamlessly (and transparently) integrated into personalized learning. In terms of education, this means that an adaptive learning product is able to adjust its pace and approach, relating instruction to the student’s interests and experiences to engage him or her in critical thinking.

My experience has shown me that for a personalized learning product to be truly personalized, and, for that matter, effective, it must include a unique combination of technologies and responses.

To begin with, the product must track, analyze and respond to everything: students’ answers, strategies, mistakes, and other student interactions and investigations. It must also use lessons that are specifically built to be adaptive – scanning a printed book and adding some multiple choice questions isn’t going to cut it.

In order to be effective, personalized learning products also need to be able to respond in a way that a professional teacher would in a one-on-one situation with a student. In other words, it has to respond in the moment and time that is most appropriate for the student – not waiting, for example, until the end of a chapter.

Personalized learning isn’t just about one-on-one attention for students – it’s so much more than that. It’s an approach to education that requires taking a new avenue of differentiated learning each and every day depending on what concepts individual students are grasping, and what may require more attention. When learning is truly personalized, it can empower students and accelerate their academic achievement.

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