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What’s in a name? Describing Personalized Learning.


• Karla Phillips

“Consistent and effective communication and engagement with students, educators, parents and community stakeholders is crucial for a successful transition to personalized learning.”  – Tale of Three States: The Next Chapter

Over the past several years, ExcelinEd has partnered with federal and state policy leaders to support innovative educators and their efforts to implement competency-based education. This education model tailors a student’s educational experience to meet their unique strengths, interests and needs. Coupled with flexibility in learning pace and delivery, competency-based education allows students to progress when they demonstrate mastery of key content and skills regardless of the time spent in class or even where instruction takes place. To date, 10 states have enacted legislation authorizing specific competency-based pilot programs, and many more have launched broader innovation programs. ExcelinEd has been proud to provide technical expertise to many of these efforts.

Our deep involvement in this work has prompted us to refocus our policy and communication efforts to support state efforts more effectively. For one, we recently made a deliberate shift in terminology: from competency-based education to personalized learning. More and more states, schools and advocates are moving away from the term “competency-based education” to the broader and more encompassing term “personalized learning.” This makes sense given that competency-based education is but one aspect of personalized learning – a foundation and some framing, but not the entire structure.

Another notable shift in recent years has been the dramatic uptick in interest.  Schools all over the country have begun the transition to personalized learning and countless others are expressing interest.  From these pioneers, we are learning key lessons.  The biggest takeaway has been the critical role of strategic communication and outreach strategies and was noted in our recent report outlining the experience of Idaho, Utah and Florida pilot programs.

This prompted us to do a little mining of our own, or at least a little research. Over the past few months, ExcelinEd conducted a national survey of 800 registered voters to understand their views of personalized learning and education in general.

We wanted to understand better one of the biggest challenges schools and educators face when transitioning to personalized learning: communications and messaging. What is personalized learning, exactly? What do schools hope to accomplish? What does personalized learning mean for students? How should schools talk to parents about personalized learning? Regardless of whether schools are pioneers or simply prospectors, communicating about personalized learning has become a priority for implementing this systemic change.

So what did we learn? Here are just a few of the more important takeaways that states, districts and schools might consider:

  • Respondents are not confident in the quality of American schools. Thus schools considering efforts to personalize learning may find support from parents and the general.
  • Personalized learning is more widely used on social media and more easily understood.  This affirms the deliberate shift in terminology.
  • Personalized learning is generally well-received, but not necessarily well-known. This only reinforces the need for clear communication of how it will work for students.
  • With regards to personalized learning, the term “mastery” signals that a student is ready to learn more advanced material, while “competency” leaves room for doubt. In practice, this means providing some guarantee that outcomes matter.
  • Lessened rigor is the most common concern when it comes to personalizing learning. No one wants to see student performance lag, so schools need to communicate how personalization will lead to increased college and career readiness.

There is much more to share, and ExcelinEd will be doing just that with policymakers, partners, and practitioners in the weeks and months to come. We recognize that personalizing learning grounded in mastery-based progressions is an evolution in how education is planned, delivered, and measured. That’s why we will continue to evolve in our work and support as well.

In the meantime, please visit our Personalized Learning Policy Library to learn more.


About the author


Karla Phillips

Karla@ExcelinEd.org

Karla is Policy Director for Personalized Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.