Like dozens of other education-technology companies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hasn't been shy about marketing its products as helping to personalize learning.
There's Personal Math Trainer, "the ultimate online, adaptive assessment and personalized learning system," which promises to determine each child's strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and ideal learning pace.
There's also READ 180, a software program that "puts students in the driver's seat" by adjusting to their individual skill levels and giving them choice over what they read.
And then there's "Into Learning," a series of comprehensive digital curricula that promise to help teachers "tailor support for every learner."
But what exactly does "personalized learning" mean across these varied products and contexts? And more broadly speaking, which labels and claims employed by companies can be trusted? How do the products schools are being offered differ from what teachers are already doing in their classrooms? Is personalized learning being oversold?
They're all questions that get more complicated by the year for district officials trying to settle on personalized learning strategies and figure out which products will help them meet their goals.
"It's become such a generic term. It's aspirin," said Daniel Gohl, the chief academic officer of Florida's Broward County Schools, the sixth-largest district in the country. "Slapping on the label 'personalized' does not mean that [a product] helps me systematically move student achievement."
Companies themselves recognize the dynamic.
"The whole marketplace is confused about what we mean when we say 'personalized learning,'" said Matthew Mugo Fields, a general manager at HMH.
Initially, the ed-tech industry's vision sounded pretty analogous to what the ascendant consumer-technology companies of the day—such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Netflix—were doing: amassing a ton of data on users, using it to build profiles of interests and habits, and then developing algorithms that could target those same users with recommendations and suggestions.
As personalized learning started to take off, many ed-tech vendors applied the term to supplemental instructional resources that targeted different content to different students in specific subjects. Consider, for example, Newsela, which was founded in 2012. The company provides classrooms with daily lists of curated digital nonfiction reading material, adjusted to a variety of reading levels.
"The dull K-12 content and cookie-cutter tools that teachers have been given just aren't cutting it. Reading nonfiction should be enthralling, relevant and personalized, and that's what Newsela delivers," CEO Matthew Gross said back in 2013, when the company announced its first $1.2 million in venture-capital seed funding. (It now has more than 12 million registered users.)
More recently, the personalized-learning universe has expanded considerably. Large publishers, for example, now promote comprehensive technology solutions that rely on artificial intelligence to customize instruction across multiple dimensions.
Take McGraw-Hill Education, and its ALEKS and Redbird Learning programs. Both offer complete curricula for entire subjects and grades, and the company touts the capacity of each program's adaptive engine to understand what students do and don't know, and respond accordingly with targeted instructional approaches.
"These we consider to be fully interactive," said Adam Gay, a vice president for product marketing and strategy at McGraw-Hill, in an interview. "Personalization at scale is possible."
Partly, the increasing pervasiveness and many permutations of "personalized learning" is just capitalism at work, said Audrey Watters, an independent researcher who studies education technology and maintains the popular Hack Education blog.
"When any kind of trend like this becomes really popular, you start to see the marketing materials reshape themselves around a particular phrase, which is applied to more and more things," she said.
In addition, myriad murky notions of personalization have flourished because the general concept resonates with many teachers on a gut level, said Beth Rabbitt, CEO of the nonprofit group The Learning Accelerator.
"Educators have been trying to personalize what they're doing in the classroom with kids for centuries, if not longer," Rabbitt said.
Given that context, the experts agreed, more clarity and precision from companies would go a long way.
"I believe educational technology companies have the responsibility of explaining how their tool or product will help, for which students, under which conditions—with evidence of why they think that is correct," Rabbit said.
It's important to note, however, that the K-12 marketplace is not a one-way street.
Districts themselves have also become more active in seeking technology-based products and services that use the term "personalized learning."
Consider, for example, research conducted recently for Education Week by GovWin by Deltek, a company that tracks bids and requests for proposals issued by K-12 school systems. The term "personalized learning" first showed up in Deltek's database in 2012, when four districts sought related services (none involving technology.) A year later, districts issued 59 such bids or RFPs, with 16 specifically seeking ed-tech products.
That trendline has continued. Now, even Broward County, where the chief academic officer worried about personalized learning becoming a meaningless term, is seeking out an enterprise-level product that it hopes can help fuel more customization across the district.
"We're about to put out an RFP for a student information system that is going to need to be supportive of personalized learning," Gohl said. "Having a data system that constrains how teachers have to report makes it very difficult for them to differentiate and personalize."
Given such demand, it's no surprise that companies have vied for schools' money and attention using promises of greater personalization.
To help K-12 officials become savvier consumers, groups such as LEAP Innovations have stepped into the mix.
A Chicago nonprofit that helps area schools implement personalized-learning models, LEAP now vets more than 100 ed-tech companies every year. The group ultimately provides in-depth reviews of 30 to 40 products based on what they purport to do, whether they have a strong research base behind them, and how well they fit into the teacher- and student-centered personalized-learning framework LEAP promotes in schools. It then matches schools with products through its LEAP Pilot Network.
At schools like Chicago's Asa Randolph Elementary, that guidance has led to a series of one-year pilots, with software products intended to help boost math and literacy scores by helping build up the basic skills of students who are behind grade level.
The most important features her school looked for were diagnostic assessments to pinpoint where students are, as well as and help developing specific plans of action for each student," said principal Elizabeth Meyers.
Educators recommend getting vendors to answer the following questions about their personalized learning products and services:
• What kinds of problems are you trying to help teachers solve in the classroom?
• Exactly what do you mean by "personalized learning"?
• Does your product give teachers flexibility in how they can use it?
• Can you demonstrate that you understand the learners who are the users of your products?
• What evidence for efficacy can you provide for this product, and what is that research based on?
• How will your product's training support the kind of personalization that our teachers or administrators have come to expect?
"The most important question is what you want the product to do," she said. "The technology doesn't replace the human element…[and] it's not going to solve all your cares and concerns."
As such sentiments have become more common, industry players have taken note, leading the language of the marketplace to morph again.
"We were seeing a bit of backlash from teachers, who don't want decisions taken away from them," said Mitch Weisburgh, the president of the Educational Technology Industry Network, a division of the Software & Information Industry Association, an industry trade organization. "When [personalization] is fully automated, somehow it seems soulless."
To avoid giving off that vibe, companies have increasingly focused on how their tools can empower teachers, instead of replace them.
Take, for example, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
"For us, it's really about creating that integrated solution and supporting that teacher in the delivery of personalized learning experiences," said Fields, the general manager at the company.
So how are K-12 districts to navigate such a constantly shifting landscape?
Carefully considering the details of each individual product is one smart strategy for K-12 leaders, experts advised.
Another is being patient enough to take the long view.
The language that companies are using to sell personalized learning today isn't all that different from the language they used decades ago, said Watters. She pointed to a 1962 ad for something called the UNIVOX Teaching Machine Auto-mated Speed Learning Method. Among the claims in the ad:
There is no such thing as a slow-learner; there are only slow, old-fashioned learning methods. UNIVOX is automatically paced to the level of the child using it. Your youngster will no longer be held back by a "slow" class or pushed by a "fast" one. He will proceed at his own natural rate.
"We're often fed the narrative that the world is changing quickly, and schools are unwilling or unable to keep up," Watters said. "But when you look at the historical background, perhaps that's not true. There's time to stop and think about these things."