The concept of personalized learning dominates conversations on education reform. But how well is this concept holding on the ground? Is it making any headway in schools? And if it is, what helps and what hinders its progress? A new report by the Rand Corporation provides some answers. Titled Early Progress, this report reviews two-years worth of data from 23 U.S. public charter schools, all started on the path of personalized learning. Although the model is still young and the data is insufficient to draw any definitive conclusions, the news are generally good. Here is what I took from this report.
- Personalized learning promises to improve student performance. How was student performance assessed? And more importantly, was the improvement in performance measured such that it could be credited to personalized learning? The truth is that metrics were robust but it’s too early to use them as clear evidence in favour of the new school model. To be specific, students went through adaptive online testing of reading and math skills, at least twice a year. Also known as MAPs (Measures of Academic Progress), these computerized tests from the NorthWest Education Association (NWEA) adjust to learners’ individual level in real time, based on their previous answers. Successive test results are then used to calculate an “effect size”, which is a statistically meaningful measure for learners’ improvement. Here, “effect sizes” calculated over two years, especially for elementary grades, indicated gains in reading and math that were significantly larger than those of a carefully matched control group. And the MAP results were in line with the overall student performance in reading and math, which improved from below national average to above or at national average over the two years of the study. So far, so good!
- Learner profiles and personal learning plans are key tools. As you probably know, these aren’t necessarily new tools, but they are being revised and updated to fit the central role they must play in personalized education. A learner profile describes the learner’s strengths and areas of interest, as well as areas of need and challenge. The personal learning plan identifies the individual learning goals along with strategies for achieving those goals. Both documents are created and updated regularly together with the learner and their family. Their purpose is to keep track of the learner’s progress and the strategies used, including adjustments and changes. In essence, these documents provide a map of one’s learning path. And this map is found to be very helpful for individualizing instruction. Surprisingly though, most students and parents do not access these documents on their own. Is the relevance of these tools clear to learners and their families? Are they transparent enough? Do they require that students own their learning to an extent that most of them aren’t ready for as yet? Addressing such questions timely will make a big difference for the future of personalized learning.
- Flexibility is essential, but most challenging to achieve. In order to tailor the learning environment to the individual learners’ needs, schools have to operate in an extremely flexible way. In meeting the requirements of differentiated instruction and competency-based progression – two pillars of personalized learning – schools must be able to adapt their schedules, staffing, and physical spaces swiftly. They must also prepare their staff and families for dealing effectively with the change. And none of these comes easy. Aside some inherent logistical issues, teachers need time to learn, absorb and apply correctly the new pedagogical model. Learners and their families must grasp the new ideas too, and among other things, they need to get used to competency indicators instead of grades. The learning curve is steep for everyone. While digital technologies provide a lot of support and assistance, there is a ton to improve there too, including in the quality and reliability of such resources. Last but not least, meeting state standards continues to be the main driver of learning, which conflicts in many ways with the methodology and aims of personalized education. So, it looks like a long way to go!
Like other similar reports, this too is cautiously optimistic. In its next phase, the study will expand to 29 additional schools for a total period of three years. While awaiting new findings, let’s keep in mind that personalized, learner-centred education is a radical change from our long-held ideas about schooling. It requires a huge shift in how we plan, conduct and measure learning, and even work in general. But it’s the only kind of education that makes sense for our times. Therefore, it may be early days yet but, with or without our help, it will have to work itself out eventually.