Personalized learning—coming to a classroom near you

When you buy paper towels, mascara, or diapers at Target, you unwittingly reveal a lot about yourself and your consumption habits. Target and other savvy retailers track what you buy, monitor your credit card purchases and website visits, and link that data to demographic information—your marital status, your ethnicity, and other personal but accessible details. Then they analyze all of that data with one goal in mind: figuring out how to sell you more stuff.

Now this approach is being piloted in a field altogether different from retail sales: education. Educators call this personalized learning, and it draws on similar kinds of technology and analytics to customize education for individual students. The goal here is to get students to learn more stuff. Proponents of personalized learning, including School of Education Dean David Andrews, believe it has the potential to revolutionize education. "The grocery store does a better job of managing their data because they're tracking everything and they're using sophisticated analytics to try to figure out how to get you to Aisle 4," Andrews says. "We're not using the same sophisticated analytics in school to understand how to lead students to the best learning strategies."

The philosophy underlying personalized learning is not new. Educators have long eschewed a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. What's new here is data. In student-centric personalized learning environments, students work to master core skills and concepts in their preferred ways, some in small peer groups, some via computerized instruction, some through one-on-one guidance from a teacher. Teachers digitally record their observations and student performance data as the computers capture student progress click by click. The data are analyzed and displayed on a dashboard that teachers can access on a daily or weekly basis to adjust each student's course, ensuring he receives learning material tailored to his needs, interests, and learning preferences. At the beginning of each new school year, teachers review the profiles of their incoming students to be better prepared to teach well.

To pull off personalized learning, schools need to switch from a focus on summative data (grades on midterm exams, papers, or tests; scores gathered at the end of a project or semester, etc.) to more-frequently gathered formative data (more-timely measures of skill level, mastery of concepts, etc.)—and then put that data to more strategic use. "Teachers are observing students all the time and making qualitative judgments about what's happening," Andrews says. "They're just not tracking it."

Instituting this new methodology will be no small feat. The required technology is costly, and teachers will have to be trained on the new system and then find the time to gather, enter, and fully utilize student data. There is a risk of widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots: In school systems that can't afford to implement personalized learning, struggling students may end up even further behind their peers who attend better-funded schools.

If the access issue can be solved, "I think it can be an equalizer," says Andrews, who is writing a book on personalized learning to be published in 2014. Johns Hopkins plans to implement the idea at Elmer A. Henderson School in East Baltimore. Known as Henderson-Hopkins, the K–8 school is a contract school of the Baltimore City public school system and Hopkins' School of Education, in partnership with Morgan State University's School of Education and Urban Studies. The new 90,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to open in January 2014, and like other personalized learning schools features flexible common areas that can be used for collaborative student work and hands-on activities. Andrews says the first step will be adding enhanced data collection and technological capacity to the school's Success for All literacy program, an evidence-based system created by Johns Hopkins education researchers.

Personalized learning isn't just an opportunity—it's also a mandate for educators, Andrews believes. "In the next generation, because of the information age, learners are going to expect that [everything they do is] personalized," Andrews says. "It's becoming an expectation of learners that we're going to have to meet."