Personalized Learning: What Companies Need to Know

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Districts everywhere say they want “personalized learning,” but what they mean by that term often varies enormously from school system to school system.

Many K-12 systems define personalized learning as simply tailoring curriculum to meet individual students’ academic strengths and weaknesses. But others describe it as a strategy to help build student motivation—by customizing content and instruction to match not only students’ academic needs, but also their personal interests, in the hope of better engaging them.

Ultimately, the vendors that succeed in delivering personalized content will be those who can accomplish several tasks, including making their products user-friendly for a variety of K-12 constituents and not overwhelming districts’ technology infrastructure.


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Districts everywhere are keenly interested in “personalized learning”—and K-12 companies are determined to deliver it.

But when school officials say they want personalized learning, what do they really mean, and what do vendors need to be prepared to give them?

The definition of personalized learning tends to vary from district to district. So do the needs of administrators and teachers who like the idea that personalizing content and instruction could help engage students in school and improve their academic performance.

The companies that succeed in this market—whether they’re providing content and curriculum, developing digital platforms, or creating classroom assessments—will grasp what districts actually want and see clearly how they’re going to help K-12 educators overcome the barriers in their way.

First, companies need to understand the basics: What do K-12 officials mean when they say they’re looking for a “personalized” approach to teaching and learning?

Personalized learning is more than tailoring curriculum to meet strengths and weaknesses.

Many administrators and teachers today define personalized learning as simply tailoring curriculum to meet individual students’ academic strengths and weaknesses. But in recent years, school officials have also described it as a strategy to help build student motivation—by customizing content and instruction to match not only students’ academic needs, but also their personal interests, in the hope of better engaging them. Some districts, meanwhile, want a hybrid of these two approaches.

Others have laid out broader, more holistic visions. In a 2014 statement, a group of philanthropies and tech advocates argued that personalized learning rests on a series of pillars—including leading students through competency-based progressions in school and creating “learner profiles” of them.

Many district leaders are trying to jump-start personalized learning by buying up digital tools and platforms to help their educators quickly assess student needs and tailor content to meet them. Other districts are going a different route, trying to personalize learning through ambitious overhauls of students’ class schedules and academic options.

Whatever the strategy, several clear trends—and common frustrations—have emerged in districts that have set out on the personalized-learning path.

How Your Company Can Help

Where are the biggest opportunities for vendors trying to help these school systems meet their goals?

EdWeek Market Brief drew on conversations with K-12 officials around the country to put together a cheat sheet to get companies ready to respond to districts’ personalized-learning needs.

Companies providing personalized learning need to win over teachers and administrators.

Ultimately, companies that want to win districts over with their personalized offerings have to deliver on several fronts:

  • Show a clear focus on academic outcomes.
    It may seem obvious: Superintendents, principals, and teachers face enormous pressure to improve student achievement, typically measured through test scores. That pressure shows little sign of abating. Companies need to convince K-12 leaders that their personalized platforms, tools, and lessons will help districts meet state standards and boost performance on high-stakes tests—or at least help them make progress.
  • Keep data privacy in mind.
    Ed-tech-based personalized learning can require the collection of lots of student data, and that makes parents—and school administrators—nervous. Companies need to explain clearly what information they collect, how they protect it, and what data they share with third-party vendors. Companies shouldn’t assume that district tech officials know all the privacy risks they face—and vendors can win their confidence with upfront information on potential pitfalls.
  • Make sure personalization products are teacher-friendly.
    Research shows that teachers gravitate toward technology that makes their jobs easier. The success of personalized-learning products hinges largely on teachers’ ability to master them quickly, without delays or breakdowns. Companies need to commit to a heavy dose of professional development at the outset—and continued PD support for educators as needed.
  • Build buy-in among administrators, too.
    Teachers aren’t the only ones who have to make adjustments. When principals or central-office administrators first visit classrooms where teachers are trying to “personalize” instruction—using new tech tools, project-based learning, or independent study, for instance—those administrators may be uneasy at what seems like a disruptive or disorganized space. Companies need to work with teachers’ bosses to explain how these new classroom environments are going to function, and succeed.
  • Recognize the demand for iTunes-type content.
    Many districts have a growing appetite for modular or bite-size pieces of content. Some have compared this to choosing curriculum and lessons the way that consumers buy music online—by album, or song by song. Not every district will crave this flexibility, but companies that can deliver it will have an extra selling point.
  • Make sure your product plays well with others.
    Many K-12 leaders want personalized systems that can share data and content with other systems and applications. This is often called “interoperability”—and a number of large districts are already demanding it of vendors in RFPs. Wise companies will prepare their products to meet those standards.
  • Understand districts’ technology capabilitiesand shortcomings.
    Rising demands for online testing and surging digital-device use are straining districts’ Internet connectivity to the max. Ed-tech companies need to show school leaders that their personalization tools and platforms will not make things even worse. What’s more, many students lack reliable connectivity at home—scuttling their ability to do in-depth research and homework online. Companies will raise their standing if they can offer creative options that help districts meet those students’ needs.