students grouping around a tablet computer

Personalized Learning Success Starts with the Right Platform

Many schools are turning to personalized learning to help meet students’ individual needs. And why not? Most teachers teach dozens of students a day. A teacher’s overall number of students, also known as class load, can have a significant impact on teacher effectiveness, according to Lisa Nielsen, The Innovative Educator. With ratios like these, it is a struggle just to assess student strengths and weaknesses. Providing an individual education plan for each student seems out of reach. By using technology wisely, however, what seemed impossible 10 years ago is now within reach.

EdTech companies have rushed to create platforms to gather data and personalize instruction. Unfortunately, the nature of the industry means that many of these come to market before being perfected. Even well-known platforms make claims in their marketing materials that can be hard to reproduce in practice.

What to Look For

No platform will offer everything you need, nor can you be 100% sure that a platform will deliver results, until you use it in your own school. Ask yourself these questions before committing to any personalized learning platform.

How Much Does it Cost?

You get what you pay for, right? When it comes to personalized learning, it’s not that simple. There are many great free platforms out there. If you are using a free platform, though, you have to ask yourself why the platform is free. Websites ending in “.org,” are non-profits, and are likely funded through donations.

If the company providing the “free” product is a business, the product is likely “Freemium.” Be very careful with this pricing model, says Matthew Lynch, The EdTech Advocate. The $0 price tag acts as bait to gets you to invest time and energy into implementation, before considering the cost. Once you’ve learned the platform and incorporated it into your classroom routine….sooner or later the bill will come.

Some freemium products are fully-functioning with premium add-ons; others are merely trial versions. If a product from a for-profit company seems completely free, there is likely a catch. I’ve been burned by implementing products that started free, until the company changed policy and began charging. Another time, I used a ‘free’ product that seemed fully functional until students advanced beyond a certain level. Since the kids enjoyed it and we had spent so much time rolling it out, we really had no choice but to purchase it.

As a result, I prefer either free products from non-profits, or reasonably (and straightforwardly) priced products from for-profit companies. If a product meets the standards listed below and charges a reasonable price, better to just pay the piper and know what you’re getting into.

Do You Love the Dashboard?

Every personalized learning platform has a “dashboard.” It’s another name for the ‘teacher view’ or ‘administrator view.’ This is where you can view data that the platform collects. As with any other piece of software, all dashboards are not created equally.
The first thing to look at is the layout – good dashboards make it easy to find what you will need. Next, take a look “under the hood.” One of the most important features is the data reporting. This should include visualizations that make it quick and easy to make sense of the data.

"Skill View" from Khan academy dashboard
Skill View, from Khan Academy Dashboard

You should also be able to view the data in different forms. For example, to see it broken down by student, by class, or by topic/skill. Sometimes you will want to see just the last week, other times you will want the last six months. A good dashboard should accomplish all of these with ease.
It can be hard to evaluate a dashboard without student data – check to see if there is a demo account that will let you navigate sample data. Viewing screenshots and screencasts is not the same as navigating yourself.

Is the Product Finished?

Apparently it is an accepted practice in the tech world to release products while they are still being developed. It even has a catchy name – MVP (Minimum Viable Product). Outside of Silicon Valley, the idea of selling an unfinished product seems shocking. But in the startup world it’s just another step in development and marketing.

Around 5 years ago, I came across a (now defunct) product called Waggle. At first, students loved the game-based learning platform and began making progress. After a few levels, however, they began receiving error messages. We soon realized the issue: the company had only completed the first few activities before selling us the product. We were guinea pigs paying to be part of their market test.

Of course, all products need to be tested, and some MVPs are great products on their way to being amazing. At the same time, as educators we need to protect ourselves and our students from this type of fiasco. That is, unless you have a few dozen hours of instructional and planning time to spare.

Since then, I always log in as a student to experience a new platform from their perspective. I’ll explore for a week to a month before I introduce a new platform to classes. Even the best programs have their quirks, and you will feel more comfortable putting students on platform once you know what they will experience.

Do Kids Like It?

Just as a test-run will help you know if a product is fully-developed, it should also show you whether the platform is enjoyable. Most kids enjoy learning: as long as the material is challenging, but not too hard. When kids enjoy a personalized learning platform, it can be a sign that it is targeting the student’s level accurately. When kids hate a platform, it’s usually because the work is too hard or too easy.

Since learning is enjoyable in its own right, too many bells and whistles can be a sign that the underlying instruction is faulty. It’s not that kids can’t learn from cartoons and songs.  But we should be cautious of products that simply dress up “information delivery.” A well-made platform allows kids to learn through inquiry and experience. It reminds me of how spices were used in the Middle Ages – not as an accent, but as a cover for foul smells and tastes. If the learning engine is top-notch, we shouldn’t have to pander to get kids’ attention.

Does it Get Results?

While we want students to be engaged, if they are having too much fun, we should be a bit suspicious. If your students play Cool Math Games, you appreciate the difference between a video game and a fun educational product.

Student enjoyment is necessary, but not sufficient, in choosing a personalized learning platform. The impact of a platform is hard thing to evaluate before implementation. If there was a platform that guaranteed results, everyone would implement it right away.


Every method of evaluation has limits: Online reviews can be fake. Personal recommendations are one person’s opinion. And you won’t have enough information beforehand to do your own analysis. Even official-sounding studies often celebrate results that are tough to replicate in classrooms.  If all indicators are positive, though, you should have a reasonable chance of success

Getting Started

Once you’ve chosen a personalized learning platform, make sure to thoroughly plan for implementation. First consider how this fits in with the overall curriculum plan. The Three Bridges approach is a way to build curriculum that balances differentiation with the need to address grade level standards.

I suggest allowing four to five weeks to get up-and-running. (One week for setup, one week for launch, and 2-3 weeks for initial adjustments and data gathering). Soon, you will have enough quality data to inform small group, whole group, and one-on-one instruction.