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.

Unpacking degrees

Chris Dillow questions the purpose and value of a university degree (linked from Observational Epidemiology):

What is university for? I ask this old question because the utilitarian answer which was especially popular in the New Labour years – that the economy needs more graduates – might be becoming less plausible. A new paper by Paul Beaudry and colleagues says (pdf) there has been a “great reversal” in the demand for high cognitive skills in the US since around 2000, and the BLS forecasts that the fastest-growing occupations between now and 2020 will be mostly traditionally non-graduate ones, such as care assistants, fast food workers and truck drivers; Allister Heath thinks a similar thing might be true for the UK.

Nevertheless,we should ask: what function would universities serve in an economy where demand for higher cognitive skills is declining? There are many possibilities:

– A signaling device. A degree tells prospective employers that its holder is intelligent, hard-working and moderately conventional – all attractive qualities.

– Network effects. University teaches you to associate with the sort of people who might have good jobs in future, and might give you the contacts to get such jobs later.

– A lottery ticket.A degree doesn’t guarantee getting a good job. But without one, you have no chance.

– Flexibility. A graduate can stack shelves, and might be more attractive as a shelf-stacker than a non-graduate. Beaudry and colleagues decribe how the falling demand for graduates has caused graduates to displace non-graduates in less skilled jobs.

– Maturation & hidden unemployment. 21-year-olds are more employable than 18-year-olds, simply because they are three years less foolish. In this sense, university lets people pass time without showing up in the unemployment data.

– Consumption benefits. University is a less unpleasant way of spending three years than work. And it can provide a stock of consumption capital which improves the quality of our future leisure. By far the most important thing I learnt at Oxford was a love of Hank Williams and Leonard Cohen.

As the signaling function of the degree falls, we should consider how the signaling power of certificates, competencies, and other innovations may rise to overtake it. With specific knowledge and skills unbundled from each other, these markers may be more responsive to actual demand. More specific assessment metrics can help stakeholders better evaluate different programs of study, while more flexible learning paths can help students more efficiently pursue the knowledge and skills that will be most valuable to them.

From the credit hour to competency-based education and personalized learning

On competency-based education:

Proponents tout this model—which allows students to progress at their own pace by mastering measured “competencies” rather than spending a fixed amount of time in class—as a balm for the ills of academe. It will improve quality and expand access for working adults, they argue, while lowering costs for both colleges and students.

According to a report by Amy Laitinen of the New America Foundation, the credit hour is “the root of many problems plaguing America’s higher-education system” and “doesn’t actually represent learning in any kind of consistently meaningful or discernible way.”

Despite a 2006 clause that allows institutions to award federal financial aid based on “direct assessment” of student learning instead of the credit hour, only now will we have anyone taking advantage of it:

In April, [the Education Department] approved Southern New Hampshire University as the first institution to be eligible for financial aid under this provision. The university is rolling out a self-paced online program that has no traditional courses or professors. Instead, students advance by demonstrating mastery of 120 competencies, such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem.”

This paves the way for more educational providers to capitalize on the promise of personalized learning in meeting students’ needs.

Freedom and guidance in competency-based education

According to Paul Fain:

competency-based education… looks nothing like traditional college classes. Perhaps the method’s most revolutionary, and controversial, contribution is a changed role for faculty. Instructors don’t teach, because there are no lectures or any other guided path through course material.

Aside from the narrow view of what constitutes “teaching”, this paints only one version of what competency-based education might look like. Competencies refer to the milestones by which stakeholders assess progress, thus constraining the entry and endpoints but not the paths by which those milestones might be reached. Students could all traverse the same path but at their own pace, or they might follow any of a finite set of well-defined trajectories prescribed by instructional designers. They could also be free to chart their own course through open terrain, whether advised by a personal guide or a generic tour book, perhaps even with prerecorded audio or video highlighting landmarks. Recommended or mandated paths can then be tailored to students’ needs, experiences, and preferences. The extra degrees of freedom mean that competency-based education actually has the potential to enable much more personalized guidance than traditional time-based formats.

Why personalized learning and assessment?

Much of the recent buzz in educational technology and higher education has focused on issues of access, whether through online classes, open educational resources, or both (e.g., massive open online courses, or MOOCs). Yet access is only the beginning; other questions remain about outcomes (what to assess and how) and process (how to provide instruction that enables effective learning). Some anticipate that innovations in personalized learning and assessment will revolutionize both, while others question their effectiveness given broader constraints. The goal of this blog is to explore both the potential promises and pitfalls of personalized and adaptive learning and assessment, to better understand not just what they can do, but what they should do.