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What Is Personalized Learning and What Does it Mean for Kids With Disabilities?

Written by Meghan Casey, Policy Research & Advocacy Associate | April 28, 2016


**Check out the video from our webinar presenting NCLD’s on personalized learning for students with disabilities.**

As the personalized learning movement grows, the needs of students with disabilities and those that learn differently are not always considered. In fact, our work has shown that the worlds of education reform and special education often never meet. That’s why the roles of NCLD and parents of students with disabilities are critical.

Personalized learning has the potential to transform learning in positive ways for students with disabilities. But that cannot happen if PL systems are not designed with students with disabilities in mind.

Students with disabilities should not be an afterthought in personalized learning. Personalized learning should be designed to meet the needs of all students from the start.

In this article, we’ll explain what personalized learning is, how NCLD is taking action to ensure students with disabilities are included, and how you can help as personalized learning continues to evolve.

So what is personalized learning all about?

When learning is personalized, students receive a customized learning experience. Students learn at their own pace with structure and support in challenging areas. Learning aligns with interests, needs and skills, and takes place in an engaging environment where students gain a better understanding of their strengths.

Here are a few examples…

  • Ms. Hueber’s ninth-grade algebra class in Washington, DC:

Students work on their laptops while two teachers—a math teacher and a special educator—work one-on-one with students who need intervention or acceleration. Ms. Hueber’s math lesson is pre-recorded for students to listen to independently, giving her more class time to interact with students. As the class completes math problems on their laptops, the software provides the teachers with immediate data on how each student is progressing.

  • Brooklyn Lab Charter School in New York City:

The school developed its own unique software that acts as a learning plan for all students. Students use it to submit homework, and teachers use it to track student learning, take attendance and more. Students can follow and complete certain “loops” or “playlists,” which include individualized activities and tasks based on what they’re learning. The activity can range from basic to advanced, depending on a student’s level of performance. Assessments along the way determine whether a student should move ahead. The technology can also flag areas where remediation or additional work is needed. Students, with help from teachers, use this technology to reflect on where they’ve met the standards and what their next goal is.

In these examples, technology is used in the classroom. Even though learning can be personalized through using technology, technology is not required. And sometimes, technology alone—without the guidance and expertise of an educator—isn’t enough to personalize learning. There are many other ways to tailor instruction and learning for each student.

For example, students can rotate through different stations in a classroom and receive individualized time with a teacher, who is able to customize instruction based on each student’s progress. Some schools use project-based learning, allowing students to choose and complete a real-world activity that meets requirements for a particular lesson.

Personalized learning means multiple paths to success

One key feature of personalized learning is that it offers students multiple ways to show what they know and demonstrate mastery. One student does not have to show mastery in the same way as the next. Here is how that might look in a high school classroom where learning is tailored to students’ interests and strengths:

  • Ms. Johnson’s students are all meeting the class requirements in very different ways. Steven enjoys reading and writing, so he completes his unit assignment by submitting a research paper. Stephanie enjoys learning about science in the natural world, so she completes her assignment through an internship at the local community college’s marine biology lab. Sam, however, learns best through videos and interactive instruction, so he plans to work with the teacher, engage in interactive activities, and take the unit assessment to show his knowledge.  All three students have chosen a different way to show what they know in their science class.

There are many ways to personalize learning

Personalized learning can happen in a number of ways, and because of that, there are many different names associated with it. You may have heard of some of these other names like

  • Competency-based education
  • Project-based learning
  • Flexible learning environment
  • Learning profile
  • Personal learning path
  • Digital learning
  • Blended or online learning

Though all of these terms mean slightly different things, they all get at the main goal of personalized learning: improve and customizing the learning experience to meet the needs of every unique student.

What does this mean for students with disabilities?

The growth of personalized learning is an exciting time for students with disabilities! For decades, special education has sought to find the best ways to educate students with disabilities and meet their individual needs. We know that students with disabilities can achieve great things when they receive specialized instruction tailored to their needs, supports that build on their many strengths and abilities, and an environment that is engaging and sparks their desire to learn.  When done well and appropriately for all students, personalized learning can help educators accomplish this.

Personalized learning offers many benefits for students with disabilities. In particular, personalized learning:

  1. Increases student engagement and achievement;
  2. Encourages growth mindset;
  3. Builds decision-making and self-advocacy skills;
  4. Reduces the stigma of special education; and
  5. Gives students who think differently multiple ways to show what they have learned.

Of course, in an effort to personalize learning for all students, including students with disabilities, there have been some challenges:

  1. Students with disabilities have widely varying needs and if these are not met, students may fall behind;
  2. Assessments and accountability systems must be aligned with personalized learning and equitable for students with disabilities so they produce valid and reliable data on performance and progress;
  3. Students with disabilities must have access to appropriate technology;
  4. Parents of students with disabilities must be included, informed, and empowered (which we discuss more below); and
  5. Educators must be aware of the great demand that personalized learning systems place on students’ executive functioning skills and be ready to support students in this environment.

What is NCLD doing for parent and students?

Parents are a critical part of the personalized learning movement and NCLD recognizes that parents must be a part of any changes that happen within schools, including personalized learning. It is important that school leaders inform parents of their efforts to bring personalized learning into the classroom. It is also important that advocates bring parents’ voices to the table when decisions are made and policies are designed that relate to personalized learning and students with disabilities.

NCLD conducted a survey of more than 1,000 parents to find out how much parents knew about personalized learning and how interested they were in this topic. The results were clear:

  • Almost half of all parents had never heard of personalized learning or any term related to it.
  • Almost every parent (90%) wanted to learn more!

In addition to informing parents and bringing their ideas and concerns to the forefront of discussions, NCLD is also working hard to ensure that schools, districts, states, and policymakers are informed and dedicated to ensuring that personalized learning works for students with disabilities.

NCLD’s goals for personalized learning

NCLD is working to help schools, districts, states, and policymakers make personalized learning work for all students.  Beginning in 2015, NCLD engaged in a process with stakeholders, including parents of students with disabilities and other advocates, to help educators, families, and policymakers understand, explain, and address how school districts implementing personalized learning can systematically and appropriately include students with disabilities.

Over the course of several months, we brought together experts across the country over the phone to discuss many topics related to personalized learning and meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

From these discussions, NCLD developed a set of policy and practice recommendations for the field to use as they implement personalized learning and strive to fully integrate and benefit students with disabilities. Finally, in a large event in Washington, DC, we invited nearly 50 experts – including parents and advocates – to discuss, evaluate, and improve our recommendations.

The final product was our set of policy and practices recommendations and several additional resources to help parents, educators, school leaders, and policymakers understand and implement personalized learning for students with disabilities.

But NCLD’s work is not over.  Personalized learning is new and growing. Practices are constantly changing and experts in the field are continually learning more. Personalized learning systems can greatly benefit all students and it is our mission to ensure that they are designed with unique, diverse learners in mind. Throughout this time of great change and growth, NCLD will work to ensure that students with disabilities are not forgotten.

Parents are an important part of this process. NCLD and the field need to hear from more parents on their experiences with personalized learning and ideas for how it can better serve all students. We hope that parents will take our resources and share them with others. Use them to learn more about personalized learning. Use them to know what you can ask your own school. Use them to encourage others to get involved. And however you choose to get involved, be sure your child’s needs become a priority in personalized learning.

Over the next few years, we – alongside our partners and parents like you – will continue to explore how students with disabilities can be better included in personalized learning systems and how these systems can be optimized to benefit all students.

You can find updates on our work on our advocacy blog and sign up for NCLD’s policy and advocacy email list to receive updates on the latest news and events in our work.

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