Personalized Learning as a Team Sport: What IT Professionals Need to Know

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Key Takeaways

  • Personalized learning is growing across higher education, promising enhanced student engagement, improved retention, quicker time to degrees, and increased student success.
  • The range of personalized learning systems available today cover various models for providing content and conducting assessments.
  • Successfully implementing personalized learning requires the broad participation of many groups across campus.

The term "personalized learning" is gaining currency throughout higher education. In fact, this issue of EDUCAUSE Review features articles about various aspects of personalized learning (see the end of this article for a list of related publications). As the concept and associated technologies expand, it will become increasingly important for the IT professionals tasked with supporting personalized learning to understand just what it is and how it works. Central to the development, implementation, and ongoing support of personalized learning is the recognition that it takes a team of professionals working together toward a common goal to be successful. To use an athletics analogy, personalized learning is more basketball than golf: definitely a team sport.

The Rules of the Game: What Is Personalized Learning?

One of the challenges inherent in any discussion of personalized learning is simply defining what it is. Some cast the term as a synonym for adaptive learning. Others consider "personalized learning" as a broader umbrella framework that includes strategies such as adaptive learning.

For the purposes of this article, we base our discussion on the definition of "personalized learning" offered in ELI's 7 Things You Should Know About Personalized Learning:

Personalized learning is intended to provide a unique, highly focused learning path for each student…sophisticated programs tailor learning at the individual level and make continual adjustments to learning paths based on student performance and data from digital courseware.1

While the concept of personalizing learning has existed since the beginning of education — with one-on-one tutors, differentiated instruction, and independent study — it is only in the very recent past that technology has enabled the possibility of scaling such individualized attention: "Proponents of personalized learning maintain that IT systems and tools, along with rich data sets and analytics programs, can provide individualized learning pathways to large numbers of students."2 Data analytics combined with complex software tools now allow us to scale personalized instruction in an unprecedented manner.

Ultimately, personalized learning systems are tools (albeit sophisticated ones) targeted at promoting student success. With that central purpose, instructors remain key figures in determining how to design and deliver instruction. Yet, as personalized learning continues to expand, IT professionals will need to understand how to set up, support, and maintain these systems so that instructors can continue to focus on their primary mission of teaching and advancing student success.

Team Buy-In

As with any technology-based change, a critical step when deploying a personalized learning solution is to ensure stakeholder buy-in. In this case, the primary team members are senior institutional leadership, instructors, and students.

Senior administrators will need to conceptually understand the complexity of the systems, their potential, and the costs versus the impact that everyone hopes to achieve. However, they also must be comfortable with the nascent nature of many of these platforms. The technology and our understanding of how to effectively leverage it are still developing, and as a result, there must be an inherent tolerance for some risk and iterative success/failure. When evaluating potential expenditures, it is difficult to generalize about license costs because every platform is different. However, some common pricing structures are:

  • General institutional license with an additional cost per student. This per-student fee may be borne either by the individual students or by the institution on behalf of the students.
  • Textbook replacement, funded by direct payment from students.
  • Enterprise license based upon a per-user or set of FTE range tiers.
  • À la carte services priced separately, such as training, support, and content ingestion/course-building.

Instructors need to recognize that personalized learning will require a different kind of course design and delivery process. The amount of time they spend developing a course may not necessarily be altered, yet the way they spend their time will likely change. Curricular decisions such as granularity of objectives, prerequisites, co-requisites, dependencies, and assessment strategies may need to be rethought to accommodate the capabilities and affordances of a personalized learning platform. Based on analytics reports of student progress and performance, the way instructors interact with students may differ as well. For example, when a complete course is fully open to students at the beginning of the semester, some students may accelerate through the learning materials while others lag behind. The system generally keeps track of each detail of the status of each student and provides real-time data to the instructor. Instructors need to review this information on a timely basis and provide feedback to each student in order to keep them engaged and moving forward in the system.

Students will need to adjust their concept of how to interact with a course. The curriculum map they see, as well as specific content and assessment items, may be different for each student and each time a particular student accesses the system. In some cases, students will have the ability to accelerate through some or all of the course based on their demonstrated understanding. In other cases, they may receive remediation or additional time to focus on an especially difficult topic. Instructors might allow students to continue working on a concept until they achieve a particular grade they want, as opposed to only having one opportunity to demonstrate understanding. Over time, the system may learn student preferences and success factors and adjust the instruction accordingly — for example, a system might determine that a particular student performs better on assessments after reviewing video content rather than text-based content and will begin to present video as the student's default instructional medium.

Playing the Content Game

In some ways, the presentation of content and assessments is the "game" that the personalized learning team must master. There are many personalized learning products on the market today, and they each may offer a different strategy for delivering content and assessments to students. These systems typically handle content in one of the following ways:

  • By including content as a core part of the platform solution
  • By providing access to publisher content
  • By providing the ability to import open educational resources (OER)
  • By relying solely on the instructor to provide the content (content agnostic)
  • By permitting a combination of OER and content provided by the instructor

Core Content: The inherent value proposition of some personalized learning platforms is that they not only provide an adaptive educational experience for students but do so by delivering a curriculum of premade courseware developed by the platform provider, often delivering highly produced media. Whether a faculty member can modify this prebuilt courseware — and to what extent — depends on the individual platform.

Publisher Content: For products that offer publisher content, the entire set of course materials is provided either through a direct partnership with a publisher or through a third-party integration. Generally in these cases, instructors are not able to add, change, or delete the content in any way and any suggested changes must be channeled through the publisher. Sometimes, in this case, content does not meet the specific goals of the institution or instructor.

Open Educational Resources (OER): These materials typically consist of online educational content that is accessible to anyone, with quality often determined by the user community. In some cases a small fee is charged for use. Frequently, OER has already been adapted for specific personalized learning systems. The OER for a particular course may include all course materials, but not always, and care must be taken to thoroughly investigate the content prior to purchase or implementation. OER is often used at the individual course level, rather than at a higher curricular level. In most cases, the content can be edited or deleted based on the instructor's choice. When OER content is available and meets the instructor's needs, it is a handy way to get a jumpstart creating a personalized learning course. Moreover, it is generally cheaper for students to use if the OER content fully replaces the need to purchase a textbook.

Content Agnostic: For products that are content agnostic, the instructor or course builders must develop or otherwise supply the content themselves. If institutions intend to use their own content, they have two options: create the course content from scratch within the personalized learning system, or ingest content that already exists in their LMS or elsewhere. Depending on the personalized learning platform, using a combination of OER and the institution's own content may be the most effective way to proceed.

Combination: If the institution does plan to use its own content within an "agnostic" system, several platforms offer the ability to export this content from the LMS to the personalized learning system. This process is called "ingestion of content," or simply "ingestion." Content is exported from the LMS in a format the personalized learning system can accept. This format is often an IMS Common Cartridge, which is a standardized way to transfer digital course materials between various LMSs. Some personalized learning systems can ingest native, proprietary backups from the LMS. Other personalized learning systems may allow users to directly upload backup files into an adaptive learning system or might require sending the backup files (e.g., via e-mail or FTP) to the personalized learning company directly.

Once all the course content has been ingested, the course material must be reorganized and tweaked to meet the content criteria for that platform — e.g., a PowerPoint presentation may need to be divided up into discrete parts, and specific questions related to each piece of content must be created and added to each specific content area.

Team Fundamentals: Integration

A key consideration for IT professionals tasked with supporting personalized learning platforms is the ability to successfully integrate with existing institutional systems, particularly enterprise systems such as student information systems (SISs) and the LMS. After all, like in a sport, if the fundamentals aren't there, it is difficult to execute more elaborate strategies.

Based on institutional context and culture, some key questions to consider include:

  • Should the system be integrated into the LMS or stand alone?
  • If integrated into the LMS, should the platform display within the LMS user interface (UI) or pop out into a new window (weighing the advantages/disadvantages of seamless presentation versus instructional real estate)?
  • Does the platform integrate students' existing institutional profiles and IDs, or does it create an entirely new, platform-specific profile? Is this process transparent to the student?
  • Do grades transfer to the LMS or SIS? How is this accomplished?
  • How will students be loaded into personalized courses?
  • Is the platform cloud based? If so, does it meet institutional information security requirements?
  • What is the personalized platform's mobile delivery strategy? (Very few platforms currently have mobile course development capability or mobile capability that works through another LMS.)

Following the Game Plan: Implementing Personalized Learning

Success on the court (or field, or pitch, or diamond) is often the result of executing a well-designed game plan. The success of academic technology implementations also depends on a solid plan. Many impactful technology initiatives in higher education begin as small-scale pilots. Given the emerging nature of personalized learning platforms, it is reasonable to employ a similar strategy for evaluating and expanding their use on campus. Starting small with a cadre of willing instructors will allow an institution to "try out" personalized learning, understand how it works both in concept and practice, and address technical issues before small technical issues become big problems.

Due to the commitment required by faculty and instructional designers to build engaging online courses in a personalized learning platform, keep the following criteria in mind when creating courses.

  • Systematic: Is success defined? Do you know your objectives? Are the resources (financial, human, technical) available to ensure a reasonable chance of success? Can the objectives be resized to fit available resources and still move forward on a path of success? Is there a plan sufficiently organized that it could be transferred to another manager if necessary? Are there any barriers (cultural, political, structural) to success? Do you have strategies to mitigate these barriers?
  • Scalable: Once the project moves out of the pilot stage, is the institution prepared to grow the initiative? Can the institution afford the platform at scale (financial models for pilots versus full implementation can be very different)? Are technical support/service desk personnel prepared to handle inquiries? Are the resources in place to support the platform and initiative across a wide user base?
  • Sustainable: Is the initiative only appropriate for a small-scale implementation, or can it be maintained once it is scaled? Is there sufficient demand and political will to expand the program? How integrated into other university systems is the platform — will processes be automated, or will manual/administrative intervention be required for routine activities? Will additional administrative staff be required (e.g., instructional designers, course builders, platform administrators)?3

The adoption of standards-compliant platforms, particularly those that use Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standards, can be a crucial element in the implementation of a personalized learning system. With the use of LTI for LMS integration, issues such as single sign-on and grade-data transfer can be handled in a fairly straightforward manner. However, always be mindful of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) considerations at your institution when contemplating the use of a personalized learning platform that incorporates the use of LTI, especially when it involves generating or storing grades in the personalized learning platform or transferring grades from the personalized learning system to your LMS. Consult with the vendor directly regarding any FERPA concerns and review the contract very carefully.

Coaching Tips: Key Considerations

Though some platform developers may disagree on this, it can be very effective for instructors to place pertinent information about the personalized learning system in a "Start Here" or "Syllabus" area of the course content within the LMS. Many developers feel that the system is self-explanatory, and for the most part that may be true. However, students generally appreciate basic information about the new system that they will be using in the course.

Include a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page, which furnishes students with introductory information and basic technical requirements such as recommended browsers, screen size, operating system, and mobile app support. Provide students with some basic screen shots or a brief tutorial so they will be familiar with how and where to begin and what their learning path looks like (see figure 1). This type of information not only helps students in general but is especially helpful for students with disabilities such as visual impairments and learning disabilities.

Screen capture of personalized learning platform

Figure 1. Screen capture of personalized learning platform

In addition, be sure to include the following information:

  • Does the course/system implement formative, summative, or both types of testing?
  • What types of grading options are implemented by the platform?
    • Will the system send grades to the LMS?
    • Is there a time delay sending grades to the LMS?
    • How are grades and progress determined? Different systems offer varying methods for determining success and completion based on factors such as time, effort, correct answers, or a combination of two or more of these features.
  • Does the system incorporate the use of unfamiliar terms such as "composite score" or "knowledge state"? If so, include these definitions on the FAQ page.

Final Whistle: Conclusion

As personalized learning systems grow in feature sets, ease of use, and adoption, the expectation is that we as a community will collectively realize enhanced student engagement, improved retention, quicker time to degrees, and ultimately overall increased student success. With growing expectations will come higher-stakes institutional initiatives. The questions and recommendations discussed in this article are intended to help colleges and universities begin to think through some of the key issues associated with implementing personalized learning and provide a launching point for further research related to unique institutional contexts.

As defined here, personalized learning (leveraging technology to achieve scale) is a growing trend in today's higher education landscape. As more and more institutions venture into personalized learning, they will need to confront a variety of design, implementation, and technical issues to ensure that a potential full deployment is successful. Like most new and complex technology initiatives, a commitment to personalized learning requires the skills of a diverse team of professionals all working toward a shared goal. From instructional designers and course builders to programmers and enterprise system administrators — not to mention arguably the most important role of the instructor — personalized learning is most definitely a team sport.

Recent EDUCAUSE Review Articles Related to Personalized Learning


We'd like to thank our co-workers Brent Shaw, LMS Administrator, and Corrinne Stull, Personalized Learning Course Builder, who also contributed to this article.


  1. EDUCAUSE, "ELI's 7 Things You Should Know About Personalized Learning," September 2015.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Allison Littlejohn, ed., Reusing Online Resources: A Sustainable Approach to E-Learning (New York: Routledge, 2003), 116.

Kathleen Bastedo is an instructional designer and team leader for the Personalized Learning Team at the University of Central Florida. She earned a master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of South Florida and has been working as an instructional designer for the Center for Distributed Learning at UCF since 2006. She assists faculty with the design, development, and delivery of online courses. Her area of specialization is writing and teaching faculty about universal design for learning and the accessibility of digital course materials. Her online research interests include accessibility to online materials for individuals with disabilities, simulations and training, the cognitive theory of multimedia learning, and personalized learning.

Thomas B. Cavanagh, PhD, is associate vice president of Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida, where he oversees the university's distance learning strategy, policies, and practices. He is an award-winning instructional designer, program manager, faculty member, and administrator. Cavanagh has served as chair of the ELI Advisory Board and on the 2015 EDUCAUSE Annual Meeting and 2012 EDUCAUSE Southeast Regional Conference program committees. Other current and prior service includes the WCET Steering Committee, Advisory Board of the Florida Distance Learning Association, chair of the Distance Learning and Student Services Members' Council of the Florida Virtual Campus, Blackboard Mobile Learn Advisory Board, and track chair for the Sloan-C Conference on Blended Learning.

© 2016 Kathleen Bastedo and Thomas B. Cavanagh. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0 International.