Students in a classroom sitting at computer stations. (© Juice Images / Alamy)

Did you know that the often-used term “personalized instruction” is not the same thing as the often-used term “personalized learning?” Or that the renewed push for online learning and computerized instruction is based on some of the same arguments employed more than 30 years ago? Or that there is not a great deal of evidence that “personalized instruction” broadly improves student achievement?

All of this is part of a new policy brief by Noel Enyedy, associate professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and published by the National Center for Education Policy at the University of Colorado Boulder. It is titled “New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, And the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning.” Here’s the executive summary:

Executive Summary

There has been a renewed interest in and enthusiasm for online learning and computerized instruction. One gets a sense of déjà vu when reading today’s educational blogs and policy documents, which are recycling the same arguments for computerized instruction that appeared in the 1980s. But in the more than 30 years since the personal computer and computer-assisted instruction entered K-12 education, not much has changed. Computers are now commonplace in the classroom, but teaching practices often look similar, as do learning outcomes. This raises two questions: What has changed to get people excited about online learning? And is this revival of enthusiasm warranted?

It seems that the pace of technological advancement, combined with the clear success stories of how technology has improved productivity in other sectors, is leading policymakers and educators alike to take another look at computers in the classroom, and even at computers instead of  classrooms. In particular, advances in computational power, memory storage, and artificial intelligence are breathing new life into the promise that instruction can be tailored to the needs of each individual student, much like a one-on-one tutor. The term most often used by advocates for this approach is “Personalized Instruction.”

However, despite the advances in both hardware and software, recent studies show little evidence for the effectiveness of this form of Personalized Instruction. This is due in large part to the incredible diversity of systems that are lumped together under the label of Personalized Instruction. Combining such disparate systems into one group has made it nearly impossible to make reasonable claims one way or the other. To further cloud the issue, there are several ways that these systems can be implemented in the classroom. We are just beginning to experiment with and evaluate different implementation models—and the data show that implementation models matter. How a system is integrated into classroom routines and structures strongly mediates the outcomes for students. In light of recent findings, it may be that we need to turn to new ways of conceptualizing the role of technology in the classroom—conceptualizations that do not assume the computer will provide direct instruction to students, but instead will serve to create new opportunities for both learning and teaching.

Therefore, it is recommended that:

  • Education policymakers should continue to invest in technology but should be wary of advocacy promoting computerized instruction to an extent that oversteps the current research. Policymakers should pursue an incremental path with technology.
  • Policymakers and researchers should clearly distinguish among key systemic features of technologies in use. “Personalized Instruction” is too broad and vague an umbrella term to allow for meaningful evaluation or to guide policy.
  • Researchers should design studies focused on the K-12 context, because much available evidence to date has been extrapolated from studies done at the undergraduate and professional levels, where developmental and motivational factors differ.
  • Setting aside the controversy surrounding national academic standards, where academic standards are in place, educators adopting instruction via technology should insist that developers provide software aligned with the standards. In one implementation study where standards were adopted, 66% of the teachers reported the lack of the system’s alignment with standards as a barrier to effective implementation. Adopters might also consider seeking software that reflects national assessment systems being developed (such as the Smarter Balanced Assessments), so that instructional systems parallel accountability systems and can possibly alleviate some of the onerous and time-consuming aspects of testing to the high standards set by the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.
  • Policymakers should encourage more partnerships among developers, educational researchers and teachers. Such partnerships have great potential to produce systematic and rigorous evidence of what works and what doesn’t, including studies that take into account the various combinations of technical features, pedagogical approaches and implementation models. We cannot trust market forces alone to sort out which systems are effective.
  • Administrators must ensure that investments in technological infrastructure and software licensing are accompanied by substantive professional development for teachers in order to provide them with skills that have not historically been in the teacher’s toolbox. Particularly important will be providing teachers with practice using technological data on student performance to guide instructional decisions for individual students.
  • All stakeholders should refrain from assuming that Personalized Instruction is the only model for computers in the classroom and be open to investigating new models integrating technology into the learning process.

The brief also notes:

It is critical to note that “Personalized Instruction” is not the same as “personalized learning,” even though promoters and vendors of technological systems often use the terms interchangeably. Personalized instruction focuses on tailoring the pace, order, location, and content of a lesson uniquely for each student—as when a software program introduces a quiz at some point during instruction and then, based on the student’s score, either presents the student with new material or with a review of material not yet mastered. It is a rebranding of the idea of individualized instruction first promoted in the 1970s, before the widespread availability of personal computers.

Personalized learning, on the other hand, places the emphasis on the process of learning as opposed to attending exclusively to the delivery of content. Personalized learning refers to the ways teachers or learning environments can vary the resources, activities, and teaching techniques to effectively engage as many students as possible—as when, for example, students with a stronger intuitive understanding of the topic are assigned to small groups and given a challenging task to independently extend their understanding while the teacher concurrently works directly with a small group of students who have less prior knowledge of the topic. This interpretation of “personal” does not imply that each student receives a unique educational experience, but instead that students are provided with multiple entry points and multiple trajectories through a lesson.
Many of the current discussions of Personalized Learning are beginning to come to grips with the diversity of ways that learning can be personal, but still tend to conflate Personalized Instruction with Personalized Learning.

You can see the entire paper here.