Technology Can Make Learning Personal

As I was trying to develop a question about ISTE Teacher Standard 2 I read it over a number of times. At one point it dawned on me that the standard was really about making learning personal for students. There is a lot of confusion out there about what that means. The terms differentiated, individualized and personalized learning are tossed around interchangeably but do they really mean the same thing? What are the differences between the terms and what does that mean in terms of choosing the right tool to help teachers make learning personal for their students?

I found a great article helpfully called Personalized vs. differentiated vs. individualized learning (Basye 2016) that was originally posted through ISTE. The author defines each area and I was intrigued to see that each of the standards in ISTE Teacher Standard 2 seem to be related. Perhaps purposefully, since the author also recently coauthored a book with Peggy Grant  called Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology.

The author defines Differentiated Learning as “a type of learning where instruction is tailored to meet the learning needs, preferences, and goals of individual students.” The overall goals for students in the classroom are the same but how a teacher adapts lessons or projects to help a student reach that goal is flexible. This seems to most closely related to Standard 2a: “Design or adapt relevant learning experiences that incorporate digital tools and resources to promote student learning and creativity.”  Digital tools make it easier for teachers to adapt due dates, rubrics, directions, and resources to respond to unique student needs without materially changing the overall project or outcomes for the whole class.

Individualized learning, on the other hand, is related to pacing. The goals for all students are the same but students have the ability to move through the learning at their own pace. This can be valuable to students on the ends of the learning spectrum who either work quickly and need enrichment or acceleration or for those who need to work more slowly through a task and need the ability to go back to structures like video or written instructions to revisit the learning as needed. Standard 2b: “Develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to pursue their individual curiosities and become active participants in setting their own educational goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress” seems to fit most closely with Individualized learning. Gamification and the plethora of online, adaptive curriculum available to teach students skills at their own pace show that this a area of huge growth in the education market right now. It’s hard to keep up with what’s new and dig down to find what really works.

Finally, the author makes the case that Personalized learning is really a combination of both. He defines it as “learning that is tailored to the preferences and interests of various learners, as well as instruction that is paced to a student’s unique needs.” Personalized learning also involves the student as an active participant in creating their learning. It brings together the best of what motivates and excites students with the teacher helping them learn how to get there. Standard 2c: “Customize and personalize learning activities to address students’ diverse learning styles, working strategies, and abilities using digital tools and resources” most closely speaks to personalized learning. This is a harder area to find pre-packaged technology for and relies more heavily on teacher created material.

There are a lot of possible tools, and more being added each day to personalize learning. They seem to come in categories:

Teacher Constructed through Learning Management Systems (Canvas, Schoology, Haiku, D2L, Google Classroom, 3D GameLab, etc.) that allow teachers to customize assignments, assign different due dates, allow for choice, host individual paths (modules), and offer opportunities for badging and game based elements. These tools allow for the most flexibility for a teacher that knows their students well enough to customize based on ability, interest and needs but they are the most time consuming for the teacher. They are not terribly student based unless a teacher builds in the flexibility for a student to make choices about learning paths or content. It’s not impossible to build in, just a lot of work. They do all allow for assessment to be built in that will give students either immediate feedback or robust feedback from peers or teachers.

Teacher Constructed through other digital  tools (Actively Learn, EdPuzzle, OwlEyes, Nearpod, NextLesson, SMART Lab, Kahoot, Desmos, etc.) There are far too many tools in this category to name here. These tools are kind of a hybrid. The structure is there but the content is created, or edited, by the teacher. It allow teachers to create content students can move through at their own pace but also to collect data about student’s knowledge. Teachers can customize with their own questions, insert supporting materials into reading passages or video or engage students in various tasks.These are still very teacher directed tools but could be used to support self paced learning and.

Video Based Learning (Lynda, Kyte, AdobeTV, Atomic Learning, YouTube,, etc) These tools are generally skill based, online, video based tutorials. You can chose as much or as little as you need to learn, can test out and show mastery, provides choice and ability to customize. For purely individualized learning they are invaluable. Most of us already use YouTube to teach us many things but the rest of  these tools are curated, organized and updated regularly and can be used for students, and teachers, who are ready to learn on their own based on their own passions or interests.

Adaptive Content Based Learning (Dreambox, TenMarks, RazKids, Khan Academy, iReady, etc.) provide responsive, need based content, pretests, provide tutorials and hints, are algorithmic based and differentiated, provide data tracking, and adjusts to the learner or can be assigned by teacher. It seems to be the fastest growing market in education. The data can be invaluable to a classroom teacher but we can’t rely on these programs to do all the teaching. It should be used to support, individualize and help fill in gaps but not all students will learn well this way and teachers need to continually monitor the student’s growth and be responsive when students are struggling. This kind of learning also needs to be liberally mixed with real, collaborative, hands on projects that allow students to develop deeper learning and transfer their skills. Mixed with reflection and goal setting and regular problem based application they can be useful tools.

The final part of the ISTE Standard 2 “Provide students with multiple and varied formative and summative assessments aligned with content and technology standards, and use resulting data to inform learning and teaching” need to be woven through any kind of learning, differentiated, individualized or personalized. Without data, neither students nor teachers have a way of measuring success or determining growth. It’s vital that ongoing assessment be a part of any learning.

This may have clarified some of the differences between differentiated, individualized and personalized  for me but it may be harder to explain to teachers. Many use tools with students without any real purpose. I’ve seen students on multiplication practice websites long after they’ve mastered the skills either because the teacher doesn’t have a clear idea of the student’s capabilities, because they don’t know what should be next for the student or they haven’t really thought about the purpose of the tool and where it’s appropriateness lies in their instruction. I put together this infographic as a way to start the conversations about the differences but defining the purpose of the tools may be a more challenging conversation.



Basye, D. (2016, October 23). Personalized vs. differentiated vs. indivdualized learning. Retrieved April 23, 2017, from


Comments are closed.