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Personalized learning and equity: The means or the end?

by Saro Mohammed on Jun 23, 2017

Despite our best efforts, educational inequity persists across the country. This inequity currently takes a variety of forms including achievement, discipline, graduation, and opportunity gaps. Proponents and opponents of technology-enabled personalized learning alike believe that inequity remains a serious problem that needs to be solved sooner rather than later.

Many interpret inequity as an issue of unequal access to, among other things, educational technology -- and expect that providing technology to all students will level the playing field. On the other hand, some worry that the proliferation of educational technology in support of personalization may in fact exacerbate, rather than treat, the problem. The fact is that focusing on access when combining in-person learning with technology, known as blended learning, can lead to two possible outcomes: a world in which each student is supported in achieving their full potential, or a world in which technology-supported personalized learning primarily benefits those students who have the skills and experience needed to access and use it.

Perhaps how we conceptualize the problem of inequity itself is what will make the difference in which future world we eventually find ourselves in. I think that “unequal access” is a mischaracterization of the issue, and instead propose that we focus on equity as a formative outcome (the “means”), rather than a summative one (the “end”).

Equity as an End

One perspective is that inequity itself is the problem to be solved. This framing looks at the data (usually achievement data), and operationalizes inequity as a gap in academic performance between groups of students characterized by their ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or first language. In this paradigm, the incentive is to improve test scores in order to “close achievement gaps”. The framing of inequity as an access issue fits best within this paradigm. However, there are some who approach equity as a summative outcome, even though they believe (like I do) that equitable access is a necessary but not sufficient step in attaining educational equity.

At its most basic, personalized learning in this perspective could look like 1:1 initiatives (those that aim to provide a device to every enrolled student in a school or district) or other initiatives that focus simply on providing students with access to technology in the classroom. As previously mentioned, this access to technology in the classroom may provide opportunities that appear to reduce inequity -- students who do not have these resources at home would now have access to learning experiences that they would otherwise not have, and that other students do have outside of school. Increasing students’ access to technology might enable learning to happen at each individual student’s pace, and in a location of their choice, but gaps will persist for those students who need additional support (whether with content, technology use, or managing their own learning). In addition, some students will progress more slowly or not at all, and in this perspective, poor progress might be interpreted as “students having a slower individual pace” rather than a lack of adequate support.

For those who believe access is not enough, a focus on summative outcomes still leads to reducing inequity being characterized as raising certain groups’ average scores on a standardized test. Therefore, the best use of instructional resources would be to provide the most support to the students who are at the cusp of passing the test. Just a few students’ test scores can make all the difference in their group’s overall average, especially in smaller groups - so the potential return on investment by focusing on these students is high in this paradigm.

In addition, because the focus here is on differences in test scores, teachers may choose to concentrate on test preparation, or independent repeated practice, as instructional strategies for improving test scores. Taking this example to the extreme, mass cheating on standardized tests in effect solves the problem of inequity (this may seem like an absurd position to take, however, we know that this has in fact happened in multiple classrooms and schools across the country).

Equity as a Means

An alternative perspective is that inequity instead represents a need to be met. Here, the problem is not the unequal achievement itself, rather this unequal achievement is a symptom of an underlying need, or a formative outcome.

This subtle recharacterization of the issue leads to a noticeably different paradigm in the way we think about technology. Here, inequity is characterised as differences in instructional need between individual students. From this perspective, educators’ focus shifts from test scores to students’ learning experiences, so that learning (rather than test scores) is incentivized. To be clear, test scores, standardized assessments, and indeed, accountability, are still important tools within this paradigm, but they are no longer the outcome of focus.

Personalized learning in this perspective need not include technology at all (although technology certainly does make many of these instructional approaches doable). Instead, it would include pedagogical frameworks like data-driven instructional decision-making and mastery-based progression in order for teachers to know where students are and what their needs are. Resource allocation would be based on student need, so that more resources would go to the students with greater needs, and fewer resources to those with smaller needs.

In this different paradigm, teachers would seek to understand where a student is in relation to their learning objectives, and would use a student’s past experiences to determine which of a range of instructional strategies (including flexible grouping, differentiation, formative assessment, etc.) would be most likely to help the student progress. A student would demonstrate mastery of more basic learning objectives before moving on to more challenging ones, rather than progressing at a predetermined, age- or cohort-based time.

When technology is used to maximize learning and personalize learning experiences, students are supported in its use as well, because the goal of technology use here is to facilitate mastery of content and skills, not solely to raise test scores.

In this perspective, each student would be supported according to their needs, and no student would be forced to move on to new learning objectives, nor left to languish indefinitely at a certain level or trying to master a particular learning objective due to the impetus to take and pass a test at a certain age or grade level. Inequity, in effect, would be eliminated -- every student would perform at their greatest potential, benefitting from the unique learning experience they needed to thrive. There might still be variation in academic outcomes for students, but zip code would no longer be predictive of students’ test scores and other academic and life outcomes.


It may seem unbelievable that such a seemingly small shift in thinking about an issue could lead to such different results. The reality is that conceptualizing a problem indisputably shapes the solutions that are generated, and in this case the key to avoiding unintended consequences may lie almost entirely in how we define the core issue. Perhaps it is really the journey, not the destination, that is important when we use personalized learning to combat educational inequity.


An edited version of this blog was originally published on the Brookings Institution's Brown Center Chalkboard on 6/16/17. Saro Mohammed is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. Email comments to, and follow Saro @edresearchworks.