Companies like Netflix and Amazon have figured out how to customize their services for millions of customers, yet schools are still trying to figure out what personalized education looks like for students.
Many school district leaders recognize that the traditional school system doesn't work well for all kids and are moving toward personalized learning. This is new territory, and they're looking for examples they can follow.
To provide school leaders with some direction, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) came out with a recent report that shows examples of personalized learning across the country. By the organization's own definition, personalized education tailors learning to individual students' interests, needs and abilities. It also gives them a say in how they learn with the ultimate goal of mastering concepts, no matter how long it takes or what it takes to get there.
Personalizing learning for each student is no small task when each teacher has a nationwide average of 16 students in their class, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. California has the highest pupil-teacher ratio according to WalletHub's analysis of federal data (Vermont has the lowest ratio). The California Education Department reported its ratio at an average of 19.9 students per certificated employee — a number that may also include nurses, librarians and counselors. Anecdotally, some California public school teachers have class sizes from the mid 20s to the low 30s.
Because of technological advances, personalization can become more of a reality in today's classrooms, said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of iNACOL. And so can the goal of mastering all of the concepts and skills students are supposed to learn.
"It was logistically difficult in past decades, but now we have the tools to do it," including online learning, tools that adapt to where students are at in their learning and recommendation engines to suggest what to work on next, Patrick said.
For example, students and teachers worked together to develop an individualized learning plan for each student in Taylor County School District in Kentucky, according to the report. Students can work on projects, go at their own pace, take advantage of online learning options and teach their peers. And the district used a combination of in-house instructional videos and software tool purchases to help their students.
As a result, the district has seen all of their seniors graduate in the last three years. Taylor County also earned the Center for Digital Education's 2015 Digital Content and Curriculum Award for its efforts.
At Learning in New Contexts High School in Philadelphia, students learn different subjects in an integrated way, create their own films and research international issues. For the films, they're learning the graphic design, video recording and interviewing skills they need to finish their projects.
Two major trends emerged from the report's findings. First off, schools are focusing on ways to get a quick, accurate read of what a student knows, where they have gaps and how to adjust their learning plan on day one, said Patrick. Second, schools are looking at research to find out how students learn best and then how teachers can design learning experiences that work for them.
"Personalized learning is about doing what's right for each person, each student, each educator in the system," she said. "And it's not just taking hold here in the U.S., but it's taking hold globally."