What Are You Talking About?! The Need for Common Language around Personalized Learning

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Language matters. With a common understanding of the terms surrounding personalized learning, we will have a better shot at putting our ideas into practice.

What Are You Talking About? The Need for Common Language around Personalized Learning

As a former language teacher, I love examples of translations that didn't turn out quite as they were intended. There's the famous example when the U.S. auto-maker Chevrolet marketed the Nova in Latin America: no va in Spanish means "doesn't go". Airports seem to be a great place to find language problems, such as the sign helping people find the restrooms. My point is that language matters. When we translate between one language and another, a lack of precision is obvious and often comical. But our lack of precision around the language we use to describe innovation in education is less obvious, and even more problematic. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to personalized learning and its related concepts. I believe one of the reasons that implementing personalized learning models has been so challenging is that everyone's definition seems to be slightly different.

Sign reading "For Restrooms, Go back toward your behind."

If we can't talk about a complex concept in a consistent way, we will never have a shot at implementing it. In the years that I have been leading the transition to personalized learning in the United States, my language has become increasingly intentional. With that in mind, let me offer my definitions for five terms that I often hear used interchangeably.

Personalized Learning

Learning experiences in which the pace and the approach are adjusted to meet the needs of individual students and in which the learning is tied to students' interests and experiences

The formal definition of personalized learning provided by the U.S. Department of Education is: "Personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated."1

In other words, personalized learning includes pieces of all of the four approaches listed below, along with an element of learner agency (i.e., students are involved, in some degree, in the decision-making process related to their learning). When implemented correctly, personalized learning experiences will feel relevant to students based on their instructional needs and personal interests.2

Adaptive Learning

Technology used to assign human or digital resources to learners based on their unique needs; computers adapt the presentation of educational materials based on students' needs, as indicated by their responses to questions, tasks, and experiences

Adaptive approaches are often discussed in relation to assessments. In this context, computers adapt the educational materials (e.g., assessment questions) to meet the needs of individual students—providing a much more accurate assessment of student ability, particularly for students who are significantly above or below the mean. But adaptive learning can apply beyond just assessments.3

Individualized Learning

Learning experiences in which the pace of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students, focusing on the "when" of personalized learning

In individualized learning, all students go through the same experience, but they move on at their own pace. This is commonly seen in online learning environments. In fact, pretty much every MOOC is built on the idea of individualized learning. Students who read faster or who complete the assignments sooner, for example, can click through to the next screen. Individualized learning is most effective when used in combination with the other learning approaches listed here.

Differentiated Learning

Learning experiences in which the approach or method of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students, focusing on the "how" of personalized learning

Differentiated learning is often used along with individualized or adaptive learning. When we talk about differentiated learning, we should be careful not to confuse the concept with learning styles. This very popular, but unsupported, concept assumes that certain learners are predisposed to learning in certain ways. Although it is true that many learners have preferences for how they learn, we should not assume that because a student found a particular video helpful for learning a concept, the student is now a "video learner" and should be presented all concepts in video format. Learning is far more complex than that.

Competency-Based Learning

Learning experiences in which students progress through a learning pathway based on their ability to demonstrate competency (what they know or can do) rather than on their time spent learning or completing previous courses

Competency-based learning, also referred to as mastery-based learning, requires defining what competencies (i.e., demonstrable learning outcomes) are expected from a given learning experience. We tend to be so locked into a system of moving every student through the same classes at the same time that we haven't given nearly enough thought to how a learner would demonstrate his/her understanding of the content being taught.

Competency-based learning can save time and resources, particularly for adult learners who may already have deep expertise in some areas but not others. Perhaps the greatest challenge to competency-based learning is figuring out the right level of granularity. Demonstrating competency in all concepts taught over an entire course in one shot would be challenging. Likewise, assessing every minor skill or subskill would be cumbersome. Effective competency-based learning can exist only with highly effective assessments.4

Concluding with a Tweet

I will confess that earlier in my career, I was impressed by long, complicated definitions. Now I'm suspicious of them. Every concept has important nuances, but it is important that we can explain ideas clearly and simply. If you were in an elevator and had 30 seconds to explain the difference between competency-based and individualized learning, what would you say?

In an attempt to eat my own dogfood, I'm going to provide a Twitter version of each of the above definitions (i.e., in under 140 characters):

Personalized Learning: pace/approach adjusted and ties to students' interests
Adaptive Learning: technology assigns educational resources
Individualized Learning: pace of learning is adjusted to meet students' needs
Differentiated Learning: approach or method is adjusted to meet students' needs
Competency-Based Learning: students move on when they show what they can do

Language matters. I hope that with a common understanding of the terms surrounding personalized learning, we will have a better shot at putting our ideas into practice.


  1. Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education, "Learning," Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education, 2016 National Education Technology Plan.
  2. For some examples of personalized learning, see my 2013 TEDxBeaconStreet talk: "Reimagining Learning."
  3. For examples of adaptive learning, check out Arizona State University's experiment with Knewton and Pearson to help students who enter ASU needing additional support in math (Steve Kolowich, "The New Intelligence," Inside Higher Ed, January 25, 2013) or the School of One program in New York City.
  4. If you're looking for examples of competency-based learning at scale, check out Southern New Hampshire University's College for America. And if you want to see an awesome example of identifying learning outcomes, check out Xoces.

Richard Culatta is now chief innovation officer for the State of Rhode Island, following his service as director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education and, before that, as an education policy advisor to U.S. Senator Patty Murray. Prior to joining the federal government, Culatta was the director of Operations for the Rose Education Foundation and learning technologies advisor at Brigham Young University where he was instrumental in redesigning the teacher preparation program at the McKay School of Education. He began working with educational technology at the University of Rhode Island where he co-taught the university's first technology integration workshops for faculty.

© 2016 Richard Culatta. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License