The transformative power of personalized learning isn’t a new concept. And if science fiction genius Isaac Asimov were alive today, he’d probably smile and shake his head at all the tech startup companies, educators, and politicians who think they’ve stumbled upon the silver bullet that will save education in the United States. Asimov articulated the key components of a successful education policy twenty years ago, and I’m sure he was far from the first to do so.

But the real possibility of institutionalizing personalized learning is new. The critical moment is approaching when education stops being primarily about cramming students into a single mold of mandatory proficiencies and starts being about encouraging children and adults of every age to discover and follow their interests with reckless abandon.

ASU's iconic SkySong campus hosted the Edinnovation Summit

If you were at the Education Innovation Summit at Arizona State University this last week, or if you’ve been to any conference on the future of learning technologies in the last few years, you’ll know what I’m talking about. There’s a pervasive feeling of excitement and relief that the tools to disrupt education are finally at hand. And soon students will no longer be limited by their geographic location, socioeconomic status, teachers’ aptitude, or their unique learning style.

But like every worthwhile movement, change takes loads of time, patience and effort. Education is an enormous ship, and changing course even a little is difficult. There are administrative hurdles and financial restraints to consider, and pushback from students who are fine with the way things are, thank you very much.

Opening remarks. Speakers included Jeb Bush, Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix), and Michael Milken.

Here’s what we learned at ASU’s EdInnovation Summit about what factors should drive the development of online learning tools:

  • Engagement is priority number one.
  • First make sure a tool is useful for students or teachers. Then invest in it.
  • Assessments and testing should be collaborative and online.
  • Pay attention to the pace of learning.
  • Developing a personalized, adaptive curriculum is a completely different skill set from making textbooks.
  • Too much personalization can make users lose sight of the product’s goal.
  • Most learning takes place outside of school.
  • Most of all, students need to develop critical thinking and 21st century skills.

So the idea of personalized education isn’t new. But worldwide instant communication is new; the widespread interest in disrupting education is new; the growing stream of private and public funds into innovative technologies is new; the growing number of free online tools that allow users to organize, ingest, and share quality learning content is new; the need for an alternative to preposterously expensive higher education is new; and the vital importance of training workers for a global economy is new.

Might have been a little corny, but Jeb Bush was right when he spoke in a keynote address at the Summit: “Tech for learning allows students to learn anytime, anywhere…no student needs to be bored. No student needs to be left behind.”