Personalized Learning: A Toolkit for Engaging Students with Technology

A guidebook designed to help educators and administrators understand the concepts behind personalized learning.


  • See how personalized learning, tailored to each student's strengths, needs, and interests, maximizes student engagement and achievement.

  • Explore ways of utilizing adaptive learning software to personalize instruction in a classroom.

  • Understand how learning can be personalized when students have access to digital resources.

  • Learn how customizable educational resources can help teachers adapt learning for a variety of contexts.

  • Access resources to learn more and adopt personalized learning practices in your classroom.



What Is Personalized Learning?

A variety of instructional approaches and academic support strategies to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students.

Characteristics of Personalized Learning Environments:

  • Student-centered instruction
  • Engagement in real-world activities that promote content learning
  • Student choice and control
  • Formative assessment throughout the learning cycle
  • Seamless integration of technology into learning experiences

Why Implement Personalized Learning?

  • To improve student achievement
  • To help students meet academic standards
  • To address the needs of all students
  • To engage students by connecting their out-of-school and in-school lives

7 Things to Know about Personalized Learning

  1. Personalized learning is a 21st century form of differentiation, refreshed with technology
  2. Personalized learning focuses on academic standards
  3. Students are already personalizing their own learning
  4. Personalized learning is not a curriculum or a program but a way of thinking about teaching and learning that can transform classrooms
  5. Technology is a critical tool for personalizing learning
  6. Personalized learning can transform teaching
  7. Personalized learning is worth the effort

Benefits of Personalized Learning in a 1:1 Environment

  • Support for student-centered instruction
  • Student engagement and ownership
  • Development of 21st century skills such as collaboration and self-direction
  • Student interest in and proficiency with technology
  • Access to student data that can drive teaching and learning

Megan and Tyler are middle school students in earth science classes at two different schools studying tectonic plate theory. Megan's school takes a traditional approach to instruction while Tyler's school uses a 1 :1 computing model to personalize learning.

What Is Adaptive Learning?

It can be difficult for a single teacher to personalize learning for every student in the classroom. With the increasing classroom access to tablets, laptops, and desktop computers has come a wide assortment of software promising to help teachers with this daunting task.

Some educational software claims to be “adaptive,” a word that has come to mean many different things. Simply stated, adaptive learning software adjusts the learning content or assessment items it presents to each student based on observations made of student performance. Adaptive learning systems are designed to provide students with an appropriate level of challenge, as well as the right amount of support. The optimal learning zone lies between the student's comfort zone and the frustration zone. Too little challenge, and the student will quickly lose interest. Too much challenge, and the student will become frustrated and more likely to give up.

Getting Started

To determine the appropriate level of challenge, adaptive learning systems may employ one of several methods. One type of adaptive learning method is called “single point adaptivity.” In this model, a student's performance is evaluated at one point in time in order to determine the level of instruction or material he or she receives from that point on. Another method is called "continuous adaptive learning,” in which a student receives recommendations of learning material based on performance data collected in real-time.

Adaptive learning software shares much in common with traditional private tutoring. The software can provide supplemental instruction and coaching to students on a one-on-one basis. It can quiz a student, identify areas of weakness, and provide tips to help him or her to remember key concepts. Highly adaptive learning software can help students to get unstuck on a particular step in solving a math problem. Perhaps most useful to teachers, adaptive learning software can pinpoint exactly what students are doing well and where they might need extra help and support.

Adaptive Learning Assessment

  1. Student views content at his or her own pace.
  2. Student answers all questions of summative assessment.
  3. Student receives a specific explanation for each wrong answer.
  4. Student receives references to sections of content to review.

Personalizing Instruction

  • Structure & Schedule: When considering ways to utilize adaptive learning software to personalize instruction in a classroom, it is a good idea to lay out a structure and schedule. Some portion of the school day needs to be set aside for students to use the adaptive learning software. This is known as “blended learning”. Blended learning is an arrangement in which a student learns part of the time through computer-based delivery of content and skills practice. While the student is using the software or online service, he or she has control over the pacing and sequence of the learning. It is important for teachers that they understand how adaptive learning software works before implementing it in their classroom. Understanding how the software works enables a teacher to identify which teaching functions the software can fulfill and which it can't.
  • Empowering Teachers: Adaptive learning systems can empower teachers to do their jobs better and give students richer educational experiences. They are not intended as full replacements for teacher-led classes, but they can support a shift in the role of the teacher in the classroom. The teacher's role can shift from providing whole group instruction to supporting students as they work on their individual learning paths.
    Adaptive learning systems have a variety of features that make them valuable educational tools for both students and teachers. One feature of even the most basic level of adaptive learning software is instant feedback. Students are less likely to lose focus if feedback is immediate and personalized, something that can be difficult for a classroom teacher to provide. Adaptive learning courses often include game elements such as progression bars, badges, and unlockable achievements. This type of gamification can motivate learners as they tackle new concepts and rewards them for effort and sustained attention.
    Many adaptive learning systems provide dashboards to teachers and administrators that report data on where students are struggling. The instructor can use this precise understanding of a student's particular weaknesses to direct their coaching and intervention. These dashboards provide two more benefits: Discovering classroom trends and helping teachers more effectively group students by performance, goals, and skills.
  • Technology & Adaptive Learning: As technology use increases in the classroom, more data is captured about student activities throughout the learning process. This information can be used to create individualized learning pathways for students. Systems that attempt to automate this process are called adaptive learning systems and have the potential to drastically change how we educate students.

Adaptive learning systems automate tasks traditionally reserved for teachers, from choosing content to providing just-in-time support. These systems are gradually transitioning from linear, rules-based systems to more complex, algorithm-based systems able to base decisions on more and more data events. More technology use in the classroom equates to more data captured about student activity throughout the learning process. Adaptive learning systems can use this data to automate tasks traditionally reserved for teachers. This same data can also be used by students, teachers, administrators, and parents to create learning goals.

Practices & Products

Personalized Learning Describes Practices

  • Less class time taken up by announcements and lectures
  • More class time used for conversation
  • Less work assigned for students to complete outside of class
  • More observation of work done by students during class time
  • One-on-one tutoring/coaching provided to all students, either by a human instructor or by software

Adaptive Learning Describes Products

  • Students can use software and online services outside of class to interact with content traditionally covered in lectures
  • Dashboards and reports generated by products give teachers a view into class-wide trends and individual progress made by students
  • These products function partly as tutors by providing interactive feedback and recommended learning paths

Core Components


An adaptive learning system involves at least three component models, including:

  • Content Model: A model of the structure of the content to be learned. Adaptive learning systems need substantial content tied to standards and learning objectives to use with learners.
  • Learner Model: A means of understanding student abilities. Adaptive learning systems need to gather info about the learners themselves from simple (what students know) to complex (how students best learn).
  • Instructional Model: A way to present content to the learner in a personalized and dynamic fashion. Adaptive learning systems need to make decisions about next instructional steps, and get the right content to the right learner at the right time.


Adaptivity is a buzzword with a wide variation in meanings. While it is true that more adaptive learning programs can better adapt to the specific needs of individual students, levels of adaptivity are not indelibly linked to levels of personalization.

Digital Curriculum

Roadmap for Planning and Implementation Steps

How can you shift your educational institution to using more digital content, or even go entirely textbook-free? The path isn't the same for every school, but there are some common steps to take. This planning framework is designed to help school leaders and teachers successfully implement digital content into their learning curriculum.

  • Step 1: Develop a Team - The first step to going digital is to develop a strong network of professionals working together to support the various components of a digital program. A well-defined team that meets regularly will move the objectives of a district forward. In addition, the team should be advised by a broad-based community group.
  • Step 2: Develop a Plan - The next step is to establish goals, objectives, strategies, and measurable outcomes for the use of digital content. First, begin by analyzing your current digital content program. Next, identify your instructional objectives. Then, move to content and instructional decisions.
  • Step 3: Build the Infrastructure - To take full advantage of today's technological devices, you need to build a strong infrastructure and provide reliable, fast WiFi. Making the shift to digital content will inevitably increase the number of networked devices in your school, creating heavy demands on your network infrastructure. Contact local vendors and network specialists to determine the best set-up for your district goals, existing infrastructure, and budget.
  • Step 4: Build a Digital Curriculum - Once your infrastructure is in place, you'll need to look at the material you wish to provide to students. Rich digital content can take many forms. It can be provided in standards-based packages that build upon textbooks, with teacher's guides, assessments, and multimedia content all included and aligned to standards. It can be created collaboratively, in open source format, by a variety of experts. Or it can be drawn from multiple sources—subscriptions, free online resources and other digitized material customized locally to meet the needs of a particular classroom, grade, or district.

Digital Classroom Models

Online Learning: Instruction by a web-based educational delivery system provides a structured learning environment. It may be accessed from multiple settings in or out of a school setting. It expands educational options for students with wider course offerings, new formats, and an extended learning community.

Blended Learning: Blended learning combines online learning with other modes of instructional delivery. Rather than learning online at a distance, students learn in an adult-supervised school environment for at least part of the time. A blended learning model places value on the teacher’s face-to-face interactions with students.

Face-to-Face: Even though students come in to a physical classroom, they can still participate fully in a digital curriculum with self-paced learning if needed. Teachers may choose to place students in small groups where they use technology tools to direct their own learning.

  • Step 5: Consider Devices - Once a digital curriculum is established, districts must decide which devices best fit their educational goals and digital requirements. Budget-conscious schools might be tempted to purchase “inexpensive” eBook readers or netbooks with fewer features than full-fledged computers, but such a move can actually cost a district more if the new devices do not meet all the needs of the students or teachers who will be using them. In selecting a mobile device for classroom use, it is important to view it as a total learning platform and look for a device that supports a variety of curriculum uses, not just one of them.
  • Step 6: Learning Management Systems (LMS) - Digital content is increasingly being organized through an LMS, or learning management system. A learning management system is an online platform that enables the delivery of materials, resources, tools, and activities to students both in and out of the classroom environment. It allows teachers to offer tailored instruction that can be accessed by students anytime, anywhere without geographic constraints. While the online environment of an LMS shares many features with traditional teaching and learning, it also has some unique attributes, such as flexibility (anytime, anywhere) along with time for reflection and learners’ anonymity. Additionally, learning management systems offer the convenience and support of a common system used by teachers, support staff, students, and parents. Many K-12 districts say they are starting to use a LMS due to the Common Core State Standards, which emphasize digital assessment and personalized instruction. An LMS allows districts to easily track, modify, and share student information. It can also be used as an organizational tool for all of a district’s digital content, resources, and professional learning communities.
  • Step 7: Security & Privacy - Making the move to digital content brings with it a host of security concerns, including data protection and compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Protective wireless infrastructure for a digital program provides a segmented student network that is separate from the one used by teachers and administrators, thereby avoiding data security conflicts and protecting student information. Built-in authentication procedures enable monitoring of Internet usage while ensuring that only legitimate users are allowed to access the network.

Successful school technology programs have strategies in place to help with classroom management of different devices and activities. They establish and communicate an acceptable use policy (AUP) that specifies where and when devices can be used, as well as policies for social networking and messaging. If your district plans to open your schools to student and staff-owned devices, previous versions of the district AUP must be updated to address specific BYOD policies.

  • Step 8: Teacher Training - For a digital curriculum to succeed, it needs to be taught effectively. This requires both teacher buy-in and ongoing professional development. Without proper professional development, a digital curriculum may not live up to its expectations. Simply filling a classroom with technology devices, or inviting student-owned devices into school, does not raise achievement; rather, it’s how teachers choose to implement the devices that can determine if a digital curriculum succeeds or fails.

After implementing a digital curriculum, establish a plan to provide ongoing professional development and extensive training for staff members who are responsible for implementing the program and procedures on a daily basis. Teachers who may be more comfortable with print texts and traditional teaching methods will require a new skillset of digital classroom management strategies and a greater depth of knowledge about technology.

OER (Open Education Resources)

Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching and learning materials that are freely available online for everyone to use and can be remixed, revised, and redistributed at no cost. Unlike traditional curricular materials, which are copyrighted and fixed, OER have been authored by an individual or organization that chooses to retain few, if any, ownership rights. OER often have a Creative Commons or GNU license that explains how the material may be used, reused, adapted, and shared.

OER encompass a wide variety of educational materials, including:

  • Full university courses
  • Interactive mini-lessons and simulations
  • Adaptations of existing open work
  • Electronic textbooks
  • K-12 lesson plans, worksheets, and activities

Benefits of OER

The most immediate benefit of OER is access to quality teaching and learning materials, often in multimedia formats, at little or no cost. OER provide an alternative to costly textbooks and might lead to significant savings for schools. OER enable educational leaders to shift costs: Instead of using funds to purchase or lease instructional materials, money can be directed to fulfill other needs, such as building technology capacity. While OER are not synonymous with digital resources—many OER programs are designed to be printed and used in that format—the best potential for cost-shifting lies in digital distribution (Insights, 2016).

Openly licensed material also gives schools and districts many different technology options for implementation, from 1:1 models to BYOD and even flipped classroom programs. In addition to reducing student costs, OER can positively affect retention rates when teachers adapt the resources to best meet the needs of their student population. The collaborative nature of OER can provide a rich, robust, high-quality learning experience that is edagogically sound and better designed than what can be developed by individual teachers. The benefits of OER have global implications as well. International organizations and governments see an opportunity in OER to widen access to high-quality teaching and learning resources in poor countries or among disadvantaged communities of learners.

Modifying Open Textbooks

Modifying or adapting open textbooks is a smart way to ensure that the resource meets your unique needs. Some general consideration before adapting a textbook include:

  • Choose tools that output to flexible formats such as ePub, PDF, and HTML.
  • Check the textbook's license to ensure you have the permission to adapt the resource. If the resource has a no Derivatives clause, then it is best to avoid making modifications.
  • Be sure you have the textbook in a technical format that you are comfortable working with, such as the original source files (HTML, Word, Text, ePub, etc.).
  • Many textbooks are in PDF format, which is not conducive to editing and must be converted to an editable format.

Editing tools to consider when editing textbooks include:

  • PressBooks: A web-based authoring tool that allows users to import a number of different formats—such as ePub, HTML, and Word—and output the textbook as an ePub, PDF, or mobile-friendly website. Other tools include: Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, ePub, Google Docs, ScribeTex, TeXworks, Texmaker, MediaWiki, and Dreamweaver.
  • Students like flexibility when it comes to their textbooks. Some may prefer printed versions of the textbook, while others may prefer using a website. Still others will like to use an e-reader or e-reading software.

Licensing Considerations:

  • After making your modifications, your textbook should use the same type of Creative Commons license as the original textbook so that it is compliant with the original terms of use.

Sharing Considerations:

  • Try making your textbook available in multiple formats so students can choose the format that's right for them: ideally, something that can be viewed as a website, or on an e-reader or—as with a PDF—printed.
  • After modifying a textbook, it needs to be hosted somewhere so that it can be accessed. For example, if your textbook was created using PressBooks and you are part of the BC campus open textbook project then your textbook can be hosted on the website.

Review the Personalized Learning Guidebook for addition details ›