Designing to Personalize Learning Successfully

By Michael B. Horn, Personalized & Blended Learning Expert

Blended learning — the use of online learning in brick-and-mortar schools where students have some element of control over the time, place, path and pace of their learning — is growing fast. Educators are using it to personalize learning opportunities for students to unleash their full potential given all students have different learning needs at different times.

Increasingly, educators do not need to accept less of one thing in a school in order to have more of another. They can achieve more, as blended learning breaks through the barriers of the use of time, place, path and pace to allow each student to work on the right learning at the right time for his or her particular needs — whether that be in a group or alone, on practice problems or projects, or online or offline. It provides three new benefits — personalization, access and equity, and cost control.

The question is how educators can capture these benefits. Blended learning is not inherently good or bad. It is a pathway to student-centered learning at scale to allow each child to achieve her fullest potential, but it is not a guaranteed success.

In our new book, The Blended Workbook: Learning to Design the Schools of Our Future, Heather Staker and I tackle this topic head on by giving educators a practical set of exercises to help them design the right blended learning environment for the opportunity they are trying to seize and the learners they are serving. Just as there is no one-size-fits-all way to educate a student, there is no one-size-fits-all educational model right for every educator and every circumstance. Taking a design approach is critical.

The first rule we offer is simple, even if it is counterintuitive. Do not start with the technology. Instead, the first step in the design process is to pick a rallying cry by identifying a problem to solve or goal to achieve. Some problems relate to serving mainstream students in core subjects, whereas others arise because of gaps at the margins where schools cannot offer a particular course. Both areas are worthy of innovation. In either case, the problem or goal must not be about technology — such as trying to solve a “lack of devices” — and lead to a deployment of technology for technology’s sake.

With the problem or goal identified, it is important to state it in a SMART way — specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related — such that an organization will unambiguously know what success is and if it has been realized.

One common mistake schools make at this point is that they fail to bring the right people to the table to lead the effort. The result is that teachers are stuck either with tasks beyond their reach or with too much bureaucratic oversight. Schools must match the right type of team and the right people to the scope of the problem. Milpitas School District in California, for example, has created lightweight teams to support teachers innovating within their classrooms but brought together heavyweight school-wide design teams to rethink the very structure of some of their schools. In the workbook, we help educators pick the right team and name the right people to the effort.

With the rallying cry in place and the right team organized, it is time to design. The starting point is to look at school from the eyes of students to understand what they are trying to accomplish in their lives and thus what motivates them. When schools get the design right from the students’ perspective, such that students feel that school aligns perfectly with the things that matter to them, they show up to school eager to learn.

This is not to say that schools should not instill certain core knowledge, skills, and dispositions in students, but that to accomplish seamlessly these objectives, schools should be intrinsically motivating. This means not only understanding what students are trying to accomplish, but also understanding the experiences they need to get those jobs done, and then assembling the right resources and integrating them together in the right way to deliver those experiences.

We know that teachers are a crucial part of the student experience. But to gain teachers’ buy in, schools must work for teachers as well, which is why designing the teacher experience is the next step. Teachers have personal jobs to do in their lives, and the magic happens when schools offer experiences that are fulfilling for both students and teachers. Ensuring that teachers have opportunities to achieve, receive recognition, exercise responsibility, and advance and grow in their careers is critical. To provide teachers these motivators, blended-learning schools are experimenting with extending the reach of great teachers, assigning teachers specialized responsibilities, employing team teaching, awarding micro-credentials for achievement, and granting teachers increased authority. We give real examples of schools that have incorporated these motivators and then invite educators to think through how they could do the same in their learning designs.

The next step is the one where technology and devices finally enter the equation. The objective is to design the virtual and physical setup to align with the desired student and teacher experiences.

Some of the important questions that schools should ask when selecting content and software are should we build our own? Should we use one or multiple outside providers? Or should we adopt a facilitated-network solution — a platform that integrates modular content from a variety of sources? Considering devices — what type and how many — to match the software and student and teacher experiences is equally important. Finally, teams should think through the physical environment in which students learn. Will the traditional egg-crate factory-model school design enable students and teachers to be successful? Or is a more modular environment that enables increased customization desirable? Increasing numbers of blended-learning programs are embracing the latter.

From here it’s time to operationalize the vision. That means taking the choices from these different steps and piecing together a coherent instructional model. We offer a straightforward rubric in the book to help make this decision straightforward for educators and then allow them to customize to their needs.

After a team finishes designing, its work is still not done. Execution matters.

Schools must create the right culture. Blended learning accelerates a good culture and makes it great, but it will also accelerate a bad culture and make it terrible. Schools should also implement their designs with humility and acknowledge that it is unlikely that they will get the design right on the first try. Taking a discovery-driven approach to help school leaders identify and mitigate risks as they kick off a blended-learning program — and iterate accordingly — will help avoid costly mistakes both for students and a school’s limited budget.

Blended learning is no panacea for what ails schools. It’s a scalable strategy that can break the tradeoffs inherent in the traditional school design to allow teachers to reach students in ways never before possible. But for it to work, school leaders must not start with blended learning or technology for its own sake, but instead undertake a careful design process to unlock its potential. We’re hopeful that this new workbook will help educators take those first steps into doing just that.


Michael B. Horn (@michaelbhorn) speaks and writes about the future of education and works with a portfolio of education organizations to improve the life of each and every student. He is the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank, and he serves as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions.

Horn is the author and coauthor of multiple books, white papers, and articles on education, including the award-winning book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and the Amazon-bestseller Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

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