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Audrey Watters

Literature Review: The History of the Future of Personalization

5 min read

A literature review for Evidence and Inference, a class I'm sitting in on as part of my Spencer Fellowship.

“Personalized learning” has become something of a buzzword in education circles in recent years – shorthand, in many cases, for the potential for new technologies to reshape how schools operate and how students learn. “Personalized learning,” some insist, will allow students to move at their own pace through instructional materials. Some say it will enable a customization of instruction, so that lessons can be tailored to students’ interests and capabilities.

Despite its popularity in policy discussions, it’s not always clear what the phrase means – does “personalized learning” require technology at all, for example? Or is it akin to older, “progressive” education models that have long encouraged individual inquiry rather than “whole class instruction”?

It’s not clear what it means and it’s not clear if “it works.” It’s not readily apparent what, if any, effect that “personalized learning” has on students’ educational “outcomes” – their achievement, their curiosity and interest, and so on.

But the idea has powerful backers nonetheless – the Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for starters. The White House, under both Trump and Obama.

There are several schools of thought about “personalized learning,” much of this based on the disciplinary backgrounds of the scholars themselves. There are the educational researchers – “learning scientists” -- who investigate whether or not personalized learning is “effective.” In other words, does it raise test scores? There are those who study the sociology of education, some of whom are less interested in questions about “effectiveness” and more interested in the influence – politically, ideologically -- that industry has on educational reforms and education narratives. These researchers also look at how “personalization” works at an institutional level. There are also, of course, those in business schools who suggest that industry should have more influence on how schools are run. There are those too who study the history of education, many of whom would note that the rhetoric of and calls for “personalized learning” in some form or another is at least one hundred years old.


Learning Sciences:

Bloom, Benjamin. “The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring.” Educational Researcher. 1984.

Chen, Chih-Ming. “Intelligent web-based learning system with personalized learning path guidance.” Computers and Education. 2007.

Pane, John F., Elizabeth D. Steiner, Matthew D. Baird, Laura S. Hamilton, and Joseph D. Pane “Observations and Guidance on Implementing Personalized Learning.” RAND Corporation. 2017.

Tseng, Judy C.R., Hui-Chun Chu, Gwo-Jen Hwang, and Chin-Chung Tsai. “Development of an adaptive learning system with two sources of personalization information.” Computers and Education. 2008.

Sociology of Education:

Selwyn, Neil. Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates. 2016.

---. “Web 2.0 applications as alternative environments for informal learning – a critical review.” CERI-KERIS. 2007.

Williamson, Ben. “Educational reform, enquiry-based learning and the re-professionalisation of teachers.” The Curriculum Journal. 2009.

---. “Governing software: Networks, databases and algorithmic power in the digital governance of public education.” Learning, Media, and Technology. 2015.

History of Education:

Cuban, Larry. Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. 2001.

---. “Reforming Again, and Again, and Again.” Educational Researcher. 1990.

Education Business:

Christensen, Clayton, Curtis Johnson, and Michael Horn. Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. 2008.


It is rather remarkable that a topic as widely ballyhooed as “personalized learning” would have as little research about how well (or not) it works. But then again, that’s probably something that can be said of almost all education technologies: in the aggregate, education technologies have mixed results – some show negative effect, some show minimal effect, and some show no effect at all. There’s no “silver bullet,” if you will, that will address the problems that the education system faces.

But this makes the question of “why personalized learning?” all the more interesting.

How did “personalized learning” go from being something touted by progressive educators in the early twentieth century to the latest craze touted by education reformers and technology billionaires-turned-education philanthropists? (There are decades between progressive education of the 1900s and the push for the personal computer in schools. What happened?) Does the phrase mean the same as it did one hundred years ago? How has its meaning changed – and changed beyond simply the addition of computers?

And how does the addition of computers change what one means by “personalized learning”? Have computers changed “progressive education”? How does progressive education reconcile the highly commercial focus of much of today’s educational software? How much of “personalized learning” as imagined and built and sold by tech companies is echoes what “personalization” means on their platforms: metrics, marketing, conversion rates, customer satisfaction?

What makes “personalized learning” so appealing – again, historically but more importantly, today? Is there something about the tension of the American education system – its mandate to educate the public in some sort of collective manner? Does “personalization” offer some sort of psychological balm, perhaps, for standardization? (It is noteworthy, no doubt, that calls for “personalization” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century occurred alongside the push for mass education.) And what makes “personalized learning” so appealing to education reformers? Is it something the technology promises? Is it the technology itself?