How Do We Ensure Personalized Learning is a True Equity Initiative?

By Maria Moser, Senior Director of Teaching and Learning, NCLR and Ace Parsi, Personalized Learning Partnership Manager, National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Personalized learning is the new “it” in education. This approach, often defined by flexible learning environments that meet student interests, assets and challenges, has achieved the mantle of educational panacea, and has plenty of smart, committed advocates highlighting its potential as a game changer in educational equity conversations. Representing equity groups working in this space, we remain cautiously optimistic, knowing that there’s inevitably a gap between aspirations and reality and closing that gap demands a lot of work.

Like other advocates, we are excited by the potential of personalized learning to better serve students with disabilities (SWDs) and English Language Learners (ELLs). In principle, personalized learning invites students to demonstrate learning in multiple ways and address skills and topics at a flexible pace. It creates a systemic lens that not only identifies student challenges—and subsequently directs more timely supports to address those challenges—but also builds off students’ strengths and interests. In a world where skills such as self-advocacy, collaboration and communication are as important as content mastery, the personalized learning movement seems to demand high expectations and opportunities to develop these 21st-century competencies for all learners. Last, but not least, personalized learning builds off proven practice in serving students with disabilities and ELLs such as personalized plans, cultural responsiveness, and universal design for learning.

At the moment, these benefits reflect the potential of a promising initiative; we believe that this potential can only be realized through difficult conversations and effort among those working to implement personalized learning. Specifically, to make these benefits a reality, some of the important questions that should be addressed include:

  1. Educator Capacity-Are our educators in personalized learning systems prepared with the skills and developed mindsets to work with ELLs and SWDs? This includes supporting students with disabilities or language needs through internships and other independent learning, understanding how language acquisition interacts with content learning, and believing in the capacity of all students for growth and self-advocacy.
  2. Resources-Are we addressing the digital divide (at school and at home) in areas where we’re implementing personalized learning and ensuring tools that enable personalized learning are accessible to all learners? Is technology being used to facilitate learning opportunities with deeper depths of rigor or is it simply replicating disengaging, low rigor experiences through a virtual platform?
  3. Support Systems-Do we have on-time and on-going support systems to help students who fall behind? Are these systems equally available to all students, including those whose families may not have access to online systems?
  4. Accountability-Are we holding ourselves accountable for ensuring all students—including ELLs and SWDs—develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions essential for college, career, and civic success, or are we re-creating a bifurcated system of expectations?
  5. Parent and Community Engagement-Are parents and communities meaningfully engaged throughout the process or is this another initiative that’s done to groups rather than with them?

The fact that these challenges aren’t necessarily unique to personalized learning implementation doesn’t get advocates off the hook. If personalized learning is truly innovative, it must be able to offer opportunities for students and families frequently failed by the traditional system. Whether it’s a classroom, school, district, or state looking to implement personalized learning there are several things that must be in place to ensure that SWDs, ELLs, and other struggling learners succeed in this new paradigm:

  • Start with an inclusive vision and strategic plan-Ensure your vision and plan include common high expectations of knowledge, skills, and dispositions for all learners—start rather than end with struggling learners—what helps them will help other students as well.
  • Support educators-From new candidates to seasoned veterans, educators should be trained with skills they need to succeed with ELLs, SWDs, and other struggling learners. Among other educator competencies, this includes mastery of universal design for learning (UDL), engaging with communities and parents, and an understanding of principles of language acquisition.
  • Back it up with resources-Leverage and align resources to serve ELs, SWDs, and other struggling learners. Here we suggest that resources should be braided across programs and schools be encouraged to leverage resources and address community needs through different investments, from equitable access to technology to provisions for wrap-around support services.
  • Engage families and communities-Bring families and communities in from the beginning, gathering information about beliefs around education, learning, and technology and providing many opportunities for two-way, authentic communication around this major shift in learning. This engagement must be ongoing and families should be partners in this work. Schools and districts would be wise to set up checkpoints to readjust strategies as necessary and hold themselves accountable for results and continued engagement.
  • Collaborate with trusted brokers-English learners and students with disabilities have often had challenging experiences in the education system. Finding community organizations or local leaders that have the trust and support of families and engaging them in the process is a way to build bridges and go beyond the traditional model that leaves families and kids behind.

In the end, our suggestions boil down to two words: don’t retrofit. The norm in education is that we often come up with a strategy, build it out, and then think how to apply it for those we’ve failed. Let’s instead start with what works for those learners struggling in the current system because we know that what works for them will work for others as well.

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