Personalized learning “on demand”

Most personalized learning systems have focused on the business-to-business (B2B) rather than business-to-consumer (B2C) model. The B2B model holds appeal both since it secures large contracts all at once and since it can tailor solutions to unique institutional needs, particularly applicable in the world of education, which is subject to extensive rules and regulations for funding and accreditation at multiple levels.

Yet with giant consumer sites such as Amazon jumping in to the online education space, the possibility of offering personalized learning direct to the consumer and at scale challenges old norms about regulating access. How much will consumers trust content and instruction offered outside of accredited institutions? Along what dimensions will consumers evaluate the educational experiences they choose? How will this affect the nature, content, and quality of instruction provided? How will the added mobility affect the formation of social networks which support learning, student persistence, and consumer “stickiness”? How will learners’ data be shared (or not) across institutional barriers and over time, as the students mature?

Watch this space; there are many changes afoot.

Personalizing education for special needs

One of the most compelling arguments for personalized learning is the importance of providing an appropriate education to students with special needs. Such students challenge the system, with unexpected strengths and weaknesses that are out of scale with the norm. Simply slowing down (or speeding up) the pace of instruction won’t serve their needs, particularly as they may be exceptional on more than one dimension and in more than one direction. For them, personalized learning that decouples different skills is imperative, a way to serve their needs and extend their abilities at the same time.

While special-education laws are limited in scope due to their approach of simply setting minimum requirements, they do provide critical safeguards for supporting students at the K-12 level. As they graduate to adulthood, these students are expected to assume more responsibility to advocate for and seek accommodations for their needs if they pursue advanced study at institutions of higher education (IHEs). Even so, these minimum accommodations only grant access, and sometimes may not do enough to constitute effective instruction that enables success. Simply fulfilling minimum requirements may allow IHEs to avoid litigation, but failing to adequately serve their students is a failure to invest their resources wisely.

Challenging though it may be to (re)design instructional materials with different constraints, IHEs may find that special-needs students can provide a valuable test case, instantiating extremes on the spectrum of students they serve. These adjustments will also help them support English language learners, disadvantaged-but-capable students with gaps in their backgrounds, returning students who remember some lessons but forgot others, and career changers in search of very specific skills to flesh out their resume—deserving students whom the traditional system fails, all too often. Not all students fit the same mold, nor should they. Adapting instruction around their needs develops their potential and gives them the opportunity to give back.

An economic argument for personalized learning

As described on The Economist’s “Schumpeter” blog, economic growth depends on innovation and more flexible job preparation:

Entrepreneurs repeatedly complain that they cannot hire the right people because universities are failing to keep pace with a fast-changing job market. Small firms lack the resources to provide training and are consequently making do with fewer people working longer hours.

The claim that “established firms are usually in the business of preserving the old world” bears interesting parallels to universities, which tend to replicate their own status quo. Instead of producing numerous graduates of the programs of yesteryear, universities need to update their training to develop knowledge and skills in current demand. Adapting to these demands through lengthy committee review and accreditation requirements is unlikely to be fast enough for the “agile-development” expectations of today’s startup culture. Educational institutions thus need new processes for tailoring programs of study to modern demands with both integrity and efficiency.

An even stronger motivation for allowing students to tailor their own course of study to their particular needs is that employers seek teams of people with a mix of complementary skills, not multiple copies of people with the same skill set. Instead of trying to differentiate candidates on some imagined basis of unidimensional merit, employers need to differentiate them along multiple dimensions of value to their particular needs. Employers are constantly talking about “fit”; educational institutions should facilitate discovery of a good fit by using personalized assessment, to provide richer information about how a candidate’s unique strengths and experiences may match a particular profile of needs.