What is it?
Personalized learning gives students in high-enrollment courses an individualized learning experience through the use of adaptive courseware, targeted teaching, and reflective learning.
Instructors in small classrooms have always been able to adjust lessons for individual students who need more help or who desire more challenge. But with large class sizes, personalization gives way to the efficiency of a standard learning experience for all students. Adaptive courseware allows instructors to provide students with an individualized learning experience designed to help them succeed, while at the same time managing high-enrollment courses. Adaptive courseware is interactive and responds to student input by adjusting content, practice activities, and review assessments, leading students along an individual learning path even as all students in the class work toward mastery of the same competencies.
Adaptive courseware provides instructors with data about student progress and course trouble spots so that during face-to-face class time instructors can practice targeted teaching, rather than delivering broad lectures that include content of which students have already demonstrated mastery.
Because the courseware provides students with data on their strengths and weaknesses in content mastery, their learning habits, and what steps are necessary to improve mastery, students engage in reflective learning. When students think about how they engage in learning, they are more likely to develop successful learning skills.
Is it evidence-based?
No and yes. Early adopters of personalized learning in both K-12 and higher education were convinced to try it on the promise that personalized learning would improve student learning. There was no research on the effectiveness of personalized learning. However, five years into the use of personalized learning, we now have research to guide us. Education Week did a thorough summary of the available research in an October 2016 article, “Personalized Learning: What Does the Research Say?” concluding “The research base behind specific products is often very thin, with far more poorly designed studies done by companies themselves than robust evaluations conducted by independent third parties.”
A highly cited 2015 RAND study on personalized learning at 63 urban, public charter schools boasted “Students made significant gains in mathematics and reading, overall and in elementary and middle schools.”
SRI Education issued a study of personalized learning in higher education in 2016 that included in its key findings statements about outcomes and the research itself: course grades, course completion, and course assessments showed slight improvement, but the impacts of adaptive courseware varied too much by use case for researchers to draw universal conclusions about its effectiveness.
The eight institutions chosen for the APLU adaptive courseware grant have committed to conducting research on the effect of personalized learning for their students. It remains to be seen if the promise of personalized learning is universal or specific to particular disciplines, particular course formats, particular student demographics, or particular teaching methods. Although it has shown promise, personalized learning may not be a panacea for the obstacles to student success. Regardless, those of us teaching with adaptive learning and studying its effectiveness have formed communities both on our campuses and across the nation to raise awareness of the education gap and are working towards solutions to eliminate it.