Personalized Learning: What It Is and Why It Matters for Alaska


By Scott Johns, Associate Partner, Education Elements

Many schools and districts across the country are making shifts toward a practice called personalized learning–including districts in Alaska such as the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District (FNSBSD) and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD). As the term has become popular, educators and community leaders may have questions regarding the practice:

  • What is personalized learning?
  • Why does personalized learning matter?
  • How can I be sure that personalized learning isn’t just a passing fad?

It’s no surprise that many face challenges in defining the term—the buzz around personalized learning is palpable. In fact if you Google the term, 16 million hits will return ranging from “Should personalization be the future of learning?” to “Can great technologies replace great teachers?” Such a wide variety of definitions and opinions can create a confusing landscape to navigate for schools and districts.

What is personalized learning?

The central idea of personalized learning does not involve a specific program, intervention, or technology, but instead focuses on the development of classrooms and schools that better meet the needs of students. As shared by KPBSD Superintendent Sean Dusek in a letter to his staff, “It is the structuring of schools, classrooms and instruction so we can better respond to the individual needs of students, instead of expecting students to fit the current mold or adapt to structures that may not be successful for them.” In fact, personalized learning may best be described as a mindset in which educators continually seek to tailor learning for a student’s unique needs and circumstances.

In order to provide teachers and principals with tangible steps to successfully implement personalized learning, many districts have first sought to define the term by identifying key components they hope to see in classrooms. Many districts have adopted principles such as:

  • Targeted Instruction: Identify specific student needs through the use of data and provide instruction to meet those needs by meeting with students in small groups.
  • Data Driven Decisions: Utilize data to inform instructional decisions and provide students with opportunities to review their own data and make learning decisions based on that data.
  • Student Reflection & Ownership: Create frequent opportunities for students to reflect on what they are learning; based on these reflections, students make goals to improve their learning outcomes and opportunities to make authentic choices in their learning.
  • Integrated Digital Content: Integrate the use of digital content and tools in purposeful ways that complement offline instruction; digital content and tools  work alongside the teacher to better support student needs by providing remediation, practice, extension, etc.

Far from replacing teachers, using principles like these emphasize the central role that a teacher should play in a personalized learning classroom.Students receive the instruction they need when they need it, set goals and track their progress, and use technology in meaningful ways to work at their own pace and boost collaboration.

Why does personalized learning matter?

Districts have decided to engage in personalized learning for a variety of reasons; these include:

  • Skills necessary for changing job market: In a world that is changing at a rapid pace, many of the jobs that students will fill upon graduation do not yet exist. Instead of preparing students for specific jobs, students will need a diverse skill set to be able to succeed in the changing job market. These skills include collaboration, prioritization, and self-direction as well as social skills such as presenting and communicating.
  • Purposeful use of technology: Though technology has been in classrooms for decades, its use has not always been purposeful. If used well, technology can enhance the abilities of great teachers by providing students with more immediate feedback, enable student collaboration, provide students with an individual learning pace, and more.
  • Meeting the needs of all students: Rather than maintaining a set cadence for an entire class of students, personalized learning allows teachers to be more dynamic about the pace within a class through activities like working with small groups of students, infusing student reflection and goal-setting into the classroom, and using data to drive the instructional decisions made in the classroom.
  • Boosting student and teacher engagement: As the needs of students are better met, students feel more successful within the school environment. In turn, teachers experience greater success (and excitement) as more students succeed. This can lead to a decrease in indicators such as discipline issues and teacher turnover, and an increase in indicators such as graduation rates and student enrollment.

Specifically for Alaska, personalized learning presents an opportunity to better meet the needs of diverse students within an extremely diverse state. Personalized learning aligns well with Commissioner Johnson’s ambitious plan to chart a new course in the state through Alaska’s Education Challenge to “modernize the education system” and “improve student learning”.

FNSBSD Superintendent Karen Gaborik shares, “For us student success includes equitable access to opportunities and resources, achievement of academic competencies and state standards, and future-readiness upon graduation … I’ve embraced personalized learning because I believe that making a shift to a student-centered system is necessary to meet the learning needs of all students and prepare students for their futures.”

How can I be sure that personalized learning isn’t just a passing fad?  

As mentioned above, a handful of districts including FNSBSD and KPBSD are already diving in. FNSBSD began its personalized learning journey in January 2017, by creating a vision that conveys why the practice is important for the district. Superintendent Karen Gaborik said, “In Fairbanks we want to ensure that each student achieves their highest potential by creating a student-centered environment that engages, inspires and empowers all learners based on their unique strengths and needs … We are successful when every single one of our students is fully prepared for their next step when they leave our classrooms, our schools and our district.”

Additionally, the district has:

  • Created a cross-functional district team to make key decisions for the implementation
  • Conducted school readiness assessments to understand the strengths and needs for a strong implementation of personalized learning
  • Formed school-based teams to support, structure, and tailor the work for each school
  • Designed a bank of instructional models specific to the needs of Fairbanks’ students
  • Hosted a number of community nights to provide parents and families with opportunities to learn about personalized learning

The district will continue its implementation this fall as elementary schools iterate on the models that have been created. The work will eventually scale across all schools within the district. Superintendent Gaborik shared, “What excites me is to visit schools and classrooms over time and watch educators transform the way they approach teaching and learning as they try new strategies. When educators feel systematically supported to leverage a wide range of resources so they feel more effective and can gain more time to individualize their instruction with each student, it is amazing to watch the impact on student engagement.”

KPBSD officially began its implementation of personalized learning in spring 2017, but is building on a strong foundation that has been developed over several years. Regarding personalized learning, Superintendent Dusek has stated, “We believe that our teachers are doing great things and many teachers are already innovating in an effort to meet the needs of their students. ….Many of our teachers implement elements of personalized learning in their classrooms right now.”

Over the past few months, the district has:

  • Developed school-based teams and a cross-functional district team to lead and support the work
  • Provided training opportunities for school administrators to learn what personalized is and why it is important for the district
  • Designed an initial discovery phase for all teachers to dabble in personalized learning through activities such as interviewing students to learn more about their needs and participating in a book study on personalized learning

Opportunities to Learn More

Over the next year, superintendents, principals, and teachers within Alaska will have opportunities to learn more about personalized learning in several ways, including:

  • Learn from national thought leaders in the personalized learning space who will visit Alaska to share perspectives, ideas, and insights
  • Engage in conferences that will include workshops and opportunities to learn about personalized learning
  • And by observing pioneering districts like FNSBSD and KPBSD.

By doing so, hopefully the clutter and buzz around the term will dissipate as these activities bring opportunities for greater clarity. Throughout the process, I encourage board members to join the opportunities to learn what personalized learning could mean for their districts, schools, students, and communities.


Scott Johns is an Associate Partner with Education Elements where he works with schools and districts across the country to design and implement personalized learning. A former teacher, Scott resides in California with his wife and young daughter.

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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.