A Look into Personalized Learning

Technology on a blackboard - CC0 Public Domain

Richard Culatta, formerly with the Office of Educational Technology, identified three major challenges that exist within our current educational system: we treat all learners the same, we keep a constant schedule despite varied learning, and we provide feedback too late for it be useful to learners. In his TEDx talk, “Reimagining Learning”, Culatta suggests that shifting to a personalized learning approach is essential for the future of education. This approach leverages the use of technology to “reimagine learning” not in a way that simply digitizes traditional media but rather a way that provokes learner engagement and allows for a more personalized learning environment tailored to each learner’s individual needs.

A problem arises when all learners are being taught exactly the same despite their unique needs, interests, and challenges. “In order to develop a learning environment, individual differences need to be taken into consideration to ensure the impact on students’ achievements and satisfactions.” (Samah, Noraffandy, & Ali, 2011).

Culatta cleverly equates the issue of teaching every learner exactly the same to that of a physician who prescribes the same medication for each individual patient despite his or her illness or condition. The prescription is not based on an individual’s needs but rather adopts a “one-size-fits-all” strategy. This prescriptive approach is very similar to the current approach to education, Culatta believes it’s crucial to make the shift to personalized learning.

Personalized learning is defined in the following way by the U.S. Department of Education (2010):

Personalization refers to instruction that is paced to learning needs (i.e., individualized), tailored to learning preferences (i.e., differentiated), and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary. (p. 12)

Sam Redding, executive director at Academic Development Institute, believes that

…a student’s desire to learn and effectiveness in learning are enhanced when the learning is personalized, meaning that the student is given greater choice in selecting topics, greater control over the learning environment and learning strategies, greater access to learning resources, and frequent feedback about learning progress. (Redding, 2014, p. 4)

Technology can be used to make the connection between a learner and their individual interests. Today’s learners have 24/7 access to information, they can use multimedia to play, create, and explore, and they can connect with people all around the world to collaborate, share ideas, and learn! Mary Ann Wolf, PhD describes the use of technology in personalized learning:

Personalized learning requires not only a shift in the design of schooling, but also a leveraging of modern technologies. Personalization cannot take place at scale without technology. Personalized learning is enabled by smart e-learning systems, which help dynamically track and manage the learning needs of all students, and provide a platform to access myriad engaging learning content, resources, and learning opportunities needed to meet each student’s needs everywhere at any time, but which are not all available within the four walls of the traditional classroom. (Wolf, 2010, p. 10)

Maker Education marries a personalized learning environment with the use of technology creating a legitimate approach to learning.

Within the Maker culture, the learner is encouraged to create, play, imagine, and explore possibilities and outcomes based on their individual needs, challenges, and interests through the use of technology and innovation. When learning becomes personal, the learner becomes invested in the experience. If a learner was tasked with the assignment to use only the Makey Makey invention kit and only red Play-Doh to act as controllers in order to play Super Mario on a laptop computer, would the learning experience be the same compared to someone that had the opportunity to choose a Maker invention kit, controller objects, device(s), and project outcome(s) based on their personal interests? Would the experience of using a Maker invention kit be the same without the use of technology? How does technology enhance the overall learning experience? Does greater learning occur in a more personalized environment when the learner has the choice of creating their unique experience ?

21st century learning provides a more malleable learner-centered environment that can be tailored to individual needs through the use of technology creating a more dynamic, engaging, and personal learning experience.


Culatta, Richard. (2013, January). Reimagining Learning [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0uAuonMXrg.

Redding, S. (2014) Personal Competencies in Personalized Learning. [PDF file]. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University (Center on Innovations in Learning). Retrieved from http://www.centeril.org/publications/Personalized_Learning.pdf.

Redding, S. (2013). Through the student’s eyes: A Perspective on Personalized Learning and Practice Guide for Teachers. [PDF file]. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University (Center on Innovations in Learning). Retrieved from http://www.centeril.org/publications/2013_09_through_the_eyes.pdf.

Samah, N. A., Yahaya, N., & Ali, M. B. (2011). Individual differences in online personalized learning environment. Educational Research and Reviews, 6(7), 516-521. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.msu.edu.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/docview/1657313561?accountid=12598.

U.S. Department of Education. (2010). Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology. [PDF file]. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www.ed.gov/sites/default/files/NETP-2010-final-report.pdf.

Wolf, M. (2010). Innovate to education: System [re]design for personalized learning. A report from the 2010 symposium. [PDF file]. Washington, DC: Software & Information Industry Association. Retrieved from http://www.ccsso.org/Documents/2010%20Symposium%20on%20Personalized%20Learning.pdf.

Altmann, G. (2014, December). [Blackboard Technology Board] [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/blackboard-technology-board-school-573023/.


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