Personalized Education Comes with Pain - and Gain

Photo credit:  Mārtiņš Zemlickis

Photo credit: Mārtiņš Zemlickis

By Elizabeth LeBlanc and Dr. Christopher Harrington

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” but recent research by the Institute for Teaching and Leading into educational programs across the country demonstrates that this saying may be even more true than we think when it comes to the digital learning landscape. The purpose of this study, The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning, (executive summary available here) was to identify promising practices of personalized or customized learning programs at the K-12 level and to articulate the experiences of students, parents, teachers, and administrators within these learning environments.

One of the most significant challenges that schools face when considering a shift to more innovative learning models is that of creating and nurturing a compelling vision of teaching and learning that can be sustained over time. For our research, the i4tl team identified a group of schools who have made the systemic, philosophical commitment to the implementation of student-centered learning environments. The i4tl research team collected data using an online survey of 68 schools and districts, one-on-one interviews, stakeholder focus groups, school visits, and review of previously published data. Our work explored the following research questions:

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What are the experiences of students, parents, teachers, and administrators learning and working in a personalized learning environment?

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What are promising practices regarding the implementation and maintenance of an effective personalized learning program?

Our key findings? A general progression emerged among the schools and programs that we studied, indicating that most personalized learning programs’ growth through six areas of change and innovation - leadership, teaching and learning, school operations, technology, professional development, and community engagement - follows a roughly similar pattern of change. Schools reported about the many challenges, stumbling blocks, and bumps along the way - but also reported increased benefits to administrators, teachers, and learners as they stayed the course.

  • It takes time: i4tl studied schools and districts across a range of implementations, from fairly new programs in their first year (22% of study participants), to schools with programs that have been in existence for two to three years (57%), and schools reporting on programs that have been established for four years or longer (21%). Our study found that schools and districts reported increasing benefits as their personalized learning programs matured over time. One of the most striking takeaways were the positive changes in the growth mindset, empowerment, self-efficacy, and motivation of teachers, leaders, and learners as correlated with program longevity.

  • You have to lay the groundwork: You can’t just wake up one day and decide to go run a marathon - it takes planning and preparation. Similarly, successful personalized learning programs attributed a lot of their success on their community engagement at early stages of planning and frequent, meaningful communication with stakeholders (internal and external) around their vision for teaching and learning. Schools and districts across the continuum demonstrated that the adoption of the foundational technology infrastructure was an “early indicator” of progress toward building a personalized or customized learning program;  more than 97% of the respondents stated that their schools ensured adequate levels of Internet access to teachers and students. The same percentage reported that both students and teachers have an adequate amount of access to computing devices at school.

  • Training is key: 100% of participating schools provided some kind of professional development for staff as part of their movement towards increased personalization. However, the teachers surveyed overwhelmingly indicated a need for more targeted PD to help them make the transition from a traditional classroom to a more customized model. They also voiced a need for more scheduled time for collaboration and planning during implementation. Survey data also revealed an evolution of professional development for educators as elements of personalized learning such as voice and choice, learner agency, varied learning modalities, and formal learning progressions aligned to individual goals, are increasingly part of adult learning. In other areas, the application of personalized learning principles for educators themselves lags behind its use in student learning.

  • It’s seriously hard work: Any one of the categories we researched can be an opportunity for innovation - or a stumbling block in the process of building a personalized learning program. Even with the best-laid plans and training in place, sometimes programs “hit the wall.” School leaders and teachers reported myriad challenges such as: pressure to produce high test scores, resistance from staff to learning new practices, difficulty communicating the district’s vision, and skepticism from families about the new learning practices. However, most also reported that the challenges were a temporary part of their school or district’s personalized learning journey.

  • The job is never done: Repeat marathoners say that as soon as one race is done, they are planning for the next, continually reflecting on and adjusting their performance. Similarly, the schools that participated in our research reported through both qualitative and quantitative data that building one aspect of the program often has an unforeseen ripple effect on other areas of their learning model; innovation in one area leads to change in others as the learning model grows and evolves to become increasingly student-centered. It turns out, as many of us have long suspected, there really is no ‘we’re done’ in education.

In our upcoming blog series, i4tl will be reporting out on specific takeaways from each of the key categories -  leadership, teaching and learning, school operations, technology, professional development, and community engagement - as well as other lessons learned during this research project.

***Note: The research study “The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning” was published by Institute for Teaching and Leading in partnership with Edgenuity, Inc. and EdSurge, Inc. The Institute for Teaching and Leading is proud to partner with educators and organizations across the personalized learning landscape to further the field of digital learning and to improve the educational opportunities available to every child.