Personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology

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I just got back from vacation, which was a great time to read the The Three Body Problem science fiction trilogy, a wonderful series that revolves around the protoganist using first principles thinking to negotiate with an alien species.

Upon return, I read this Rand report on personalized learning, which was funded by the Gates foundation. The report covers a small set of schools in the early years of implementation, so best not to draw too firm of conclusions.

The report found:

  • Charters that adopted personalized learning strategies saw a +.1 effect in math and no statistically significant in reading.
  • District schools (very small N) saw no achievement gains.
  • Charter schools implemented personalized learning strategies with more operational fidelity.

Perhaps most interestingly, the authors noted:

In this theoretical conception, schools that are high implementers of PL [personalized learning]  approaches would look very different from more traditional schools. In practice, although there were some differences between the NGLC schools and the national sample, we found that schools in our study were implementing PL approaches to a varying degree, with none of the schools looking as radically different from traditional schools as theory might predict.

So in this sample, charters outperform traditional schools (thought by a lesser margin than urban charters as a whole outperform traditional schools); charters execute better; and the schools themselves don’t look radically different than traditional schools.

Hence the title of this post: personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology.

Without a technological breakthrough, the current personalized learning efforts will, at best, lead to modest improvements on the execution of common place ideas (using data to drive instruction, executing leveled small group instruction, investing children in goals, etc.). School will look the same and be a little more effective and pleasant for all involved.

This is fine and the world is in many ways built on modest improvements.

But for personalized learning to live up to its hype (as well as to its philanthropic investment), it will need a technological breakthrough.

Instructional platforms might be the first breakthrough, but even here I think the primary effects will be more around scaling great school models and content rather than deep personalization.

The crux of the issue is this: computers are simply not as good as humans in coaching students through instructional problems.

Your average person off the street remains a more effective grade school tutor than the most powerful computer in the world.

Until this changes, personalized learning will never realize its promise. The problem is one of technology, not practice.

12 thoughts on “Personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology

  1. ciro curbelo

    Their seem to be two threads in this study – What tech can help boost learning significantly? How can we get schools to implement it with fidelity?

    I suspect the former will just come with time and effort. But the latter is more the difficult to solve.

    Regarding the latter, the killer app I’ve been pining for is something that help people (adults in the schools; and some parents) who don’t want to change implement the new thing (whatever that may be) with fidelity. Something that provides enough extrinsic motivation to overcome resistance to change.

    Has anyone make real progress on this (in district run schools)?

  2. David Osborne

    Your conclusion that we cannot get the real value from personalized learning without fundamentally redesigning the school and learning process is absolutely correct. But it is already happening–and spreading. Check out Summit Public Schools, a CMO in CA and WA that is spreading its technology (free) and methods to schools all across the nation. For a description of Summit’s methods and technology, see my report on Summit at

    1. nkingsl

      Great to hear from you David. I’d just note two things: (1) so far Summit is not outperforming more traditional no excuses charters (2) Summit’s platform is still pretty far from laser targeted / effective computer tutoring. That being said, I’m super excited about Summit and am glad they are pushing hard on the platform work.

      1. Thierry Uwilingiyimana

        You seem to be confounding “deep personalization” with “individualization”, in particular, the kind only that only digital tutor can provide at scale. If you take a step back, look at the ‘personal’ in “personalized learning”, I submit to you that ‘personal’ should be holistic. The learner’s social emotional needs, their passions, interests, strengths, and challenges….not a dynamically generated pathway through polynomials depending on prior knowledge, but a human conversation with the student, understanding their “whole person” needs, interests, goals, and aspirations, maybe they have a project, and the rests must fit in to help them get there. That is personalized learning, learning on the learner’s terms.

        That has much less to do with the tools we’re using (technology), and more to do with the mindset we are bringing to our work. Amazing teachers have been providing personalized learning to students since before there were computers. Montessori has had many of the personalized learning principles and teachers managed with folders systems of paper and pen. Technology can only make personalized learning easier, not possible.

  3. stevepeha

    Hi, Neerav,

    I’ve been wiring in ed tech for most of my career. I’ve seen so many personalized learning systems I can’t keep track of them all.

    I long ago expected that personalized learning would yield great gains but even the latest RAND study was cautious.

    Then I look at classrooms great, so-so, horrible. And my own classroom teaching as well.

    Two things seem like strong predictors of above average success: emotional engagement between student and teacher and health of classroom community.

    Above average learning seems to me to be social and emotional.

    This is my reasoning about why personalized learning comes up short.

    In my consulting with ed tech providers, I also notice a very clear pattern. I’m always brought in to help the company solve a learning problem. Invariably, every client gets to a point where they say, “That’s not feasible for us! And why should we spend all that time and money when our users are only asking for features.”

    And I tell them two things:

    1. You’re right. There’s no business case for solving educational problems.

    2. If you do get to a point where you want to solve a problem, I’d be happy to show you how to do it.

    There’s a simple market reality in education: Most folks folks want to avoid a bad education for their kids. A second market segment wants a good education for their kids. But the market for people who want a great education is too small to support the kind of enterprise system development that would be required.

    And companies can get rich selling almost any tech.

    What do you think of this idea? The “failure” of ed tech is less a tach problem than it is a market problem determined by low expectations for kids’ educational potential relative to what we’ve learned about schools in the last 20 years.

    Always enjoy your posts!


    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Thierry Uwilingiyimana

      Thanks Steve for your insight. So what does that mean for the rest of us ed tech companies that want to get it right. We can sense the small market that wants transformative change, but that’s all we want to sell.

    1. joelerose

      Hi Neerav,

      Imagine 3 stops in a continuum:

      1. The model we have in schools today (1 teacher; 30 kids; 800 sq. foot room; teacher; textbook)

      2. Different models that enable a meaningful degree of personalization by integrating different ways kids can learn, leveraging today’s technologies (including AI), redesigning a set of classroom workflows around them

      3. A world where the technology problem you described is solved, and technological breakthroughs enable effective robo-teachers. (I’m not convinced that’s a realistic end state, but put it here to be illustrative).

      Is it really true that the bar for meeting the hype (and justifying the investment) requires #3? Shouldn’t it instead be how we value learning gains that can come through #2, relative to #1? The RAND study suggests that even though it’s early innings, there’s promising value to structuring the school experience to make a better use of time by giving kids some level of personalization. That should only get much better with time, better technology, and thoughtful R&D (which would help to solve the challenges addressed in the report). Certainly relative to textbooks, we should see far better than modest improvement. Along the way, new models can also make the job of the teacher more sustainable, something we all desperately need to solve,

      If new models that enable personalized learning (sans robo-teacher) can ultimately generate the kinds of results that are currently generated at the most successful charters (but with far more students), would that not justify the investments that are currently being made? And if so, what should be the burden of proof today to demonstrate that potential tomorrow?

      Uber may not meet its full potential until its cars are autonomous and can fly. But (notwithstanding its leadership issues) it’s been quite groundbreaking already.

      1. nkingsl

        Joel, great to hear from you. I agree that effective #2 would be a good step. But right now schools that are pushing on #2 are not outperforming traditional no excuses charters. If the platforms get better (and I hope they do!) then perhaps we will see schools using #2 achieve much better gains at scale. Just not there yet.

        As for Uber, it’s 100X better than taxis. Right now, PL schools aren’t better than no excuses charters.

        All this being said, I’m still bullish over longhaul! I’m just skeptical (thought I might be wrong) that current tech will get us there. Would love to be proven wrong.

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