Personalized Learning

Innovation in the digital world seems to move at the speed-of-light.  As I wonder what the conversations around digital learning will center on in five years, I believe the lasting dialogue will be “personalized learning.”

Those of us in the world of educational technology know of the rhetoric around the term, but we do not seem to have a shared understanding of its meaning.  Many use the omnipresent phrase to refer to efforts to tailor instruction to each student’s unique needs and preferences. 

The 2017 United States National Education Technology Plan states, “Personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner.”

In the words of the famous Sweet Brown video, “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That.”

But as much as this may seem a pie-in-the-sky thought, some recent eLearning advances give the concept cogency: Open Educational Resources, Adaptive Learning Technologies, and Humanization of Data.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Much of the dialogue in higher education surrounding open educational resources (OER) centers on how they offer a possible affordable alternative to the high cost of textbooks.  Reduced cost of textbooks is an asset but OER also gives instructors and students the ability to retain, revise, reuse, remix and redistribute materials.  This ability is a powerful tool for personalized learning.

Javier Miyares, President, University Maryland University College asks us to imagine a future where the education community is empowered to pool OER resources, collaborate in adopting and adapting them across educational levels and disciplinary verticals, and refining them based on the evaluation of their impact.  The net result for learners might be activities adapted for their challenges.

Think back to the time when you first understood what different meant, what it looked like, how it felt.  In the movie The Greatest Showman, the song “This Is Me” includes the chorus:

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me

In her DiversityNursing, Lynn Gauthier reminds us unintended bias is ever present and affects our behavior.  And, like any habit, we can intentionally choose to see differently.  Adapting OER with the intent of creating a space for different perspectives to have a voice in our classrooms, maybe something in education could happen as crazy as a musical that includes the deaf.

Adaptive Learning Technologies

Our instructional design team in eLearning dedicates itself to trying to create the best online learning environments for all.  However, we are not naïve about the challenges.  Physical spaces and their interactive environments are organized and conducted by humans; it is difficult to mimic human intelligence in virtual environments.

Personalized learning depends on realistic interactions between the teacher, learner, and the learning environments.  In the virtual world this would require embedding “cognitive abilities” in learning systems.

Have you ordered anything from Amazon recently?  If you have, you’re experiencing early attempts at “cognitive” embedding.  The adaptive learning technology is based on heavily automated digital learning platforms driven by predictive modeling, learning analytics, and the latest research in brain science, and cognition.

In other words, Amazon learns our preferences based on our browsing and purchase history; I’ve already discussed some of this in my You Gotta Believe Me post.

The same technology is beginning to be used in learning environments.  Adaptive learning is most common in math and science. It’s primarily used to enhance student success in remedial education—where historically the need for personalization has been most urgent.

Personalized learning will continue to mature with the success of adaptive learning technologies.

Humanization of Data

When I hear the expression “big data,” I feel like the Pointy-haired Boss in this Dilbert cartoon.   We can track, quantify, and analyze almost every user interaction. This ability has created a fascination with data, metrics, and analytics to a point some believe these numbers contain the answers to the mystery of student success.

Although gathering data is important, I do not share this same confidence.

In 1966, the automotive industry introduced a process called Quality Function Deployment (QFD). QFD was meant to transform the “voice of the customer” into engineering a product.

The car dashboard is an example of the application of QFD.  In the 1960s, the dashboard had limited features. Today’s dashboard includes an instrument panel that responds to audio commands, provides entertainment and cell phone access, GPS navigation, and communicates important data to the driver about the status of the vehicle in a usable way.

And now, QFD is being applied to education software.

The “voice of the student” and the “voice of the teacher” are being used to engineer “dashboards” that, much like a modern car dashboard, will provide important data in a way that it makes sense.

Jesse Stommel, University of Washington, believes the biggest developments coming in digital learning will be this ability to use data in gaining a better sense of the basic humanity of students.  Stommel challenges us to continue to find new and better ways to use data to more fully see and hear our students when they cry for help.

The conversation about personalized learning will continue to develop. As we consider how to add personalized courses to our eLearning, we need to research and adapt OER, adaptive learning technologies, and data humanization into our eLearning.

What are your thoughts on personalized learning? Have you already started using OER, adaptive learning, and data in your courses? Let us know your experience in the comments below.


Efti, S. Death by data: Numbers are killing your business.  Retrieved Jan 22, 2018.

Gauthier, L.  My thoughts on inclusion and what it means to me.  DiversityNursing Blog.  Retrieved Jan 29, 2018

Lieberman, M. (Dec 13, 2017). Predicting 2017’s legacy: What happened this year will still matter in 2022? Inside Higher Ed.  Retrieved Jan. 19, 2017.

Office of Educational Technology Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education: 2017 National Education Technology Plan Update. Retrieved Jan 19, 2017.

Zrymiak, D. Software quality function deployment. Retrieved Jan 22, 2018.

Author: Gary Tucker, Executive Director of eLearning

An early adopter in online education, Gary helped develop and deliver one of the first fully online Masters degrees in Educational Technology. Still an early adopter, he now depends on the expertise of his dynamic eLearning team. When off-the-clock, he reads and rides his bicycle.

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