Personalized Learning 101

By Dr. Kathleen J. Tate, Program Director of M.Ed. in Teaching

Personalized learning is an educational concept I discovered recently. I researched and found two important documents that define personalized learning serving as the foundation for designing a new graduate course, “Personalized and Individualized Online Learning” introduced by the University in the fall of 2012. The first was a report from the 2010 Symposium on [Re] Design for Personalized Learning, and the second was the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) National Education Technology Plan 2010. As a teacher, I always differentiated and individualized instruction for the children I taught in public schools. As a professor, I have taught about these processes in countless courses for more than a decade. So, I wondered how personalized learning related to differentiation and individualization.

What is Individualization?

There are varied interpretations of individualization. The Department of Education’s (ED 2010) National Education Technology Plan 2010 states that individualism:

…refers to instruction that is paced to the learning needs of different learners. Learning goals are the same for all students, but students can progress through the material at different speeds according to their learning needs. For example, students might take longer to progress through a given topic, skip topics that cover information they already know, or repeat topics they need more help on (para. 11).

Pacing is the key to individualized instruction. In practice this means that students within a class strive to achieve the same goals, but they do so at their own pace.

What is Differentiation?

While slight variations explaining differentiated instruction exist, ED defines it as referring to instruction that is:

…tailored to the learning preferences of different learners. Learning goals are the same for all students, but the method or approach of instruction varies according to the preferences of each student or what research has found works best for students like them (para. 12).

Like individualization, the learning goals are the same for students in a class. However, differentiation provides multiple pathways for learning via varied activities, strategies, and assessments. Differentiating is often based on trends within classes. For example, if inventories evaluations reveal that students in a classroom are mostly visual and kinesthetic learners with dominant spatial and interpersonal multiple intelligences, then teachers will likely differentiate activities by offering choices and experiences that use visual and kinesthetic modalities that are interactive and discussion-based.

What is Personalization?

By reviewing federal definitions of individualization and differentiation, it is easier to determine connections to personalization. ED (2010) informs us that personalization is:

…instruction that is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary (so personalization encompasses differentiation and individualization (Paragraph para. 13).

Personalized learning embraces aspects of individualization and differentiation as it involves variation in both objectives and pacing. It follows that if learning objectives are different for students, then content is as well. This could become complicated for traditional schools where classrooms are based upon grade levels. The answer to this involves slight restructuring for some contexts. The Software & Information Industry Association (2010) explains the need for teachers to redefine and expand their roles by collaborating and teaching in teams and with professional community experts to varied groupings of students (e.g. across grade levels) and serve more as facilitators.

The heart of personalized learning is more deeply knowing: self, students, colleagues, curriculum, and assessment. The two key documents referenced above provide a strong foundation in understanding national organizations and federal strategies. Personalized learning is not a new fad. It builds upon what educators should already be doing in their classrooms today.

About the Author

Dr. Tate holds a Ph.D. in Elementary Education, M.Ed. in Special Education, and B.A. in Soviet & East European Studies. She has been with APUS since July, 2011, and is an Associate Professor and Program Director of Teaching. She has over 15 years of experience as an elementary special education teacher and professor at both brick and mortar and online universities.


Software & Information Industry Association. (2010). Innovate to educate: System [re]design for

personalized learning; A report from the 2010 symposium. In collaboration with ASCD and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Washington, DC. Author: Mary Ann Wolf. Retrieved from http://www.siia.net/pli/presentations/PerLearnPaper.pdf

U.S. Department of Education. (2010). Learning: Engage and empower. Retrieved from




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