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RAND personalized learning study

As digital devices become more affordable – and prevalent – in classrooms, teachers and parents will hear more about the latest craze: “personalized learning.”

It’s also getting attention in other circles, with multi-million-dollar investments and big-name endorsements of technology that promises to make learning more personal. This raises an important question: Does it work? And the answer to that question does not come easily. But we do have some indications that it’s more than a fad.

A new report from The RAND Corporation suggest that schools that use “personalized learning” have higher rates of student success than those that do not. The long-term study, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation*, tracked about 11,000 students in 62 public school districts and found students in personalized learning settings “made gains in mathematics and reading over the past two years that were significantly greater than a comparison group made up of similar students selected from comparable schools.”

This brings us to another question: What is personalized learning? As with many emerging terms in education, the definition shape-shifts depending on who is answering that question. And, as you probably know, the editor of The Hechinger Report loathes jargon that serves to confuse the issues. I’ve heard policy wonks say that something isn’t personalized if it’s individualized. Huh? This is the point in the conversation where the average person is hopelessly confused (and bored!).

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For the purposes of the RAND research, the authors defined personalized learning with these three points: “Systems that deepen and accelerate student learning by tailoring instruction to individuals’ needs, skills and interests; Approaches that offer a variety of learning experiences that prepare students for college and career; Teachers who play an integral role by managing the learning environment, leading instruction and guiding students to take ownership of their learning.”

That last point touches on a subject many parents wonder about: Will my child be taught exclusively by a computer? Will he or she spend the day pointing and clicking on a glowing screen? It is true that some schools have infused classrooms with a lot of computer clicking, but experts say just as many use a more sensible approach with technology. And many people – even advocates for education technology – agree that the human touch in school shouldn’t end. Teachers provide the guidance and emotional intelligence that can’t be replaced by a so-called teaching machine.

The latest RAND report is not the final say, but it gives us an idea of how various groups are trying to quantify how well personalized learning works. And, of course, that matters.

(*The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is among the many donors to The Hechinger Report. If you’re interested in joining our varied group of funders, please consider a donation, here. If you give before Nov. 25 your donation will be doubled.)

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