LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) – A University of Kansas research project shows that state personalized learning plans may need common definition and more support.
The University of Kansas says in 2015, he Every Student Succeeds Act mandated and incentivized states to look into the needs of individual learners through practices that include personalized learning. It said its researchers have co-written a pair of studies showing that even though all states have addressed personalized learning in their official state policies, there is no common definition for what the practice can be and little agreement on how to implement and support the practice.
KU said personalize learning is the practice of designing curriculums to match the needs of individual students based on their strengths and interests instead of a one size fits all approach. It said while personalized learning has garnished support from policymakers and researchers, the U.S. still has much work to do to implement it on a mass scale, which starts with defining exactly what personalized learning is.
The researchers say they analyzed ESSA plans for all states and four major themes emerged: definitions of PL, goals of PL for students, support for PL and partnerships. Ling Zhang and Sohyun Yang, recent doctoral graduate and doctoral candidate in special education, and Richard Allen Carter, assistant professor at the University of Wyoming and KU alumnus say they were the researchers on the project which was published in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education.
According to the researchers, key findings found several organizations and states had attempted to define what PL is or should be, but there was no consensus and not even every state attempted definitions in their policies.
“There was no common definition of what personalized learning is, so we wanted to understand better what they thought it is or can be,” Yang said.
The researchers sad the lack of common definition led to varying goals on what states hoped to achieve through PL, though common themes did reveal themselves. The said a handful of states stated goals of providing well rounded educational opportunities, alternate pathways to skill attainment and graduation, using PL to benefit marginalized populations of students and improve schools.
“These main goals emerged from states’ guidance on PL. Some wanted to use it to improve the entire school itself instead of focusing on individual students,” Zhang said. “Only a few states had guidelines on how to use PL for students in marginalized groups like those with disabilities, homeless or migratory students. Also by reviewing research on personalized learning, we found a few studies included students with disabilities as participants, and one study explicitly excluded students with disabilities, even though it is supposed to be for all students.”
According to the team, in terms of support for personalized learning, they found states focused mostly on professional development for teachers and administrators, but others also described funding, technology and resources in their policies. They said while all four components are related, differing state laws, specifically for how education funding can be used, prevented widespread consensus on how the practice could be supported.
The team said the fourth theme they saw, partnership, revealed that states also focused on partnering in one of two ways to implement PL. The said policies primarily emphasized partnerships between school districts to support each other in the use of PL, while others emphasized partnering with private organizations that provide educational technology training and support.
The authors said they made several recommendations. They said the first is the need for a consistent definition of what the practice is. They said they recommend the development of a conceptual framework or personalized learning, based on research and successful, comprehensive PL policies like those of New Hampshire in Tennesee. They said the definition should also dictate that PL is a way to provide a well-rounded education to all students, especially those with disabilities or from marginalized groups, create alternate pathways to skill attainment and graduation and push for schoolwide improvement.
According to the team, technology and the role it can play in delivering PL to students should also play a role in policy and an integrated approach to implementation, such as the concerns of all stakeholders like administrators, teachers, parents and policymakers as well.
“Policymakers need to decide how to define PL and then have clear policies about how to implement it in their schools and states,” Yang said. “To move PL forward, we need to consider how to build these supports at an integrated level.”
The team said more research in PL is necessary to support good policy and can also focus on how to help teachers implement it to the benefit of their students and classrooms and through blended learning. They said another study by Zhang, Yang and James Baham, professor of special education at KU, published in the journal Educational Research Review, showed that the majority of research in PL is in the early stages, which focused on the role of technology and contextual factors in implementation, allowing room or study on how the approach can be done on a whole-school level.
According to the team, while the research was done before the COVID-19 pandemic, they said the challenges presented to education by forcing schools to close, teach remotely and examine daily practices can be an opportunity to improve how educators reach each student.
“Ironically, this crisis has been an accelerator for changing the way we think about how we deliver education to every student,” Zhang said. “It has opened more conversations about how to redefine the personalized learning experience for both students and teachers.”
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