Personalized Learning – Where We Are and How We Got Here

Jul. 25, 2016

Over the last fifteen years, Eli Kannai has served as Chief Educational Technology Officer of The AVI CHAI Foundation, where he oversees the development of large content websites, online and blended learning efforts, and other technology related projects.


For a long time, educational technology was focused, to a large extent, on the use of computers (and later the internet) within the classroom. Educators spoke about “breaking the classroom walls” by using YouTube clips to start a classroom discussion or by letting students look up information on the internet. Teachers began to realize that they were no longer the “owners” of information, once handheld internet devices were introduced (aka smartphones) smart kids would challenge the teachers' authority by fact checking the information discussed in class. Educators then spoke of the transition from “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side” that meant moving away from the lecturing model – but what instead? How can a teacher be a “guide on the side” with so little time to teach (or “guide”)?

In the meantime, many technologies entered the classroom. Interactive whiteboards (such as “SmartBoard”) and clickers helped enhance the delivery of still lecture based teaching. Gaming is still a promising modality for education, but “gamification” – making the common “drill and practice” routines look like a game is not really the fulfillment of this promise. Augmented and virtual reality are also promising technologies to penetrate the classroom walls, and 3D printers as well as LEGO based robotics enable project based learning and more – yet all this does not replace the frontal, lecture based education used for the core subjects studied in school. For better and for worse, most of the school curriculum still revolves around content rather than skills, and content is less relevant to the “guide on side” metaphor. Most of the time in school, students are passively listening while teachers are lecturing.

Personalized learning is different. This is not a technology – it is pedagogy. But technology can help. For example, a big promise is adaptive learning and other software-based personalized learning. Students learn and practice at their own level, and the software provides scaffolding for struggling students when needed, and challenging problems for advanced students. No student left unchallenged or behind. This is further enhanced by new technologies: “Big Data” is a term used to discuss the newly available opportunity to analyze large amounts of information stored on computers. The reason one can accumulate such large amounts of data is thanks to new technological capacities that were not available a few years ago, and now we can add to that capacity strong analytic powers to achieve new possibilities. These new opportunities appear in businesses (such as the Amazon or Netflix recommendations which are based on other users) and are now becoming significant in education. When a student uses software to practice, all the data tracking the student’s interactions with the software can be stored. When analyzed and compared with many other students – the software can infer what the student should do next, what are the student’s strengths and weaknesses, to what aspects of learning to turn the attention of the teachers. The information obtained by the computer may also be used by educators to address specific needs of their students. Learning Management Systems (LMS) are used to communicate and report on student behavior, achievements and sometimes pedagogic issues. A sophisticated LMS may also recommend corrective ideas and help teachers identify student misconceptions.

Personalized learning modalities include blended learning models as well as online learning. Blended learning is defined by The Clayton Christensen Institute, a leading think tank in this area, as a formal education program in which a student learns:

  • at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;
  • at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;
  • and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Currently, this institute identifies a few models of blended learning including the rotation model, in which students move from one learning station to another, flexible options for student learning, flipped classroom and more. In all these models learning is both via computers and with human teachers in a coordinated way: students work individually, in groups, on projects and with teachers. Teachers get to work with smaller groups and find time to address individual student needs. Online learning can be part of a blended environment, or an independent way of learning without much supervision.

When one walks into a classroom that implements blended learning it looks very different than the classroom most grownups are used to. When implemented well, almost all the students should be engaged. The room may not be quiet but almost all of the students would be on task. The teacher might be working with a small group giving students focused attention. Some students would be working alone, some with headphones and a computation device, and others may be doing collaborative work. There may be no “front” or “back” easily spotted in the classroom, but it is not chaotic. I look at it a bit like fusion, melting the best of software and human interaction for the benefit of education.


Updated: Jul. 06, 2016