Personalized Learning

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world

— Nelson Mandela (2003, para 14)

With an explosion of educational technologies available in the marketplace, there’s some who suggest that we are in the midst of a revolution in education (Twyman, 2014b).  We believe that this is true and aim to support this cause as well, and not only for traditional educational environments (i.e., school, universities).

Online Learning

The ubiquity of online learning systems and resources is overwhelming these days.  From Learning Management Systems (LMSs), open-source solutions, and private educational technology companies there is a movement towards personalized learning systems. Some resources are available to check into the quality of these educational technologies (e.g., Balefire Labs); however, with the amount of information out there it’s sometimes hard to find what’s been tried and true from an empirical standpoint. One such area is personalized learning.


Personalized Systems of Instruction (PSI) was developed by Fred S. Keller with J. Gilmour Sherman, Carolina Bori, and Rodolpho Azzi in the middle 1960s.  PSI was an innovative method of instruction implemented at the recently established University of Brasília. PSI has its roots in Behavior Analysis. In short, PSI (also known as The Keller Plan) can be summarized in 5 short principles:

  1. Written Materials – During development of PSI, these were deemed to be the most portable and available to allow for self-paced and personalized teaching practices to occur.
  2. Units of Content – Material is broken down and sequenced in logical, and empirically demonstrated sequential units allowing for component skills to be taught prior to larger composite skills.
  3. Self-paced Instruction – Students advance through the material at their own pace – not due to some external factor (e.g., calendar year, lesson plans).
  4. Unit Mastery –  Demonstration of the application of the material is required prior to advancing to the next unit of material.
  5. Proctors – Mentors and guides helped students through the course by checking for mastery of the material in each unit, as well as coach students through material that they struggled with in some way or were trying to understand in a deeper way.


Twyman (2014b) uses the trends we have experienced in the development of the internet to highlight where we are currently at and heading in education. In short, Education 2.0 is akin to Web 2.0 in that technology is cautiously “adopted,” teaching occurs through student-student and by certified teacher-student, in an online and brick-and-mortar setting.  The outcomes are that teachers serve as a guide/source, students are given more ownership over the process, but grades and graduation essentially remain the same as they always have.

The revolution to Education 3.0 would mean a few unique changes.  Namely, technology is literally everywhere and teachers and student lines are blurred as everyone in society is a teacher of the areas they are most passionate and effective in. This leaves students in an active and collaborative role with “teachers” – and strengthens the community as a whole.

The component that seems to be most needed currently to allow our culture to break into Education 3.0 is a dynamic and practical solution that allows for Personalized Learning to occur. Twyman (2014a) does suggest that the majority of the system (e.g., funding, policy, day-to-day practices) needs to occur – but that it is not as daunting as one would think.  She provides a number of schools and districts that are successfully transferring their systems over to allow for personalized learning and competency-based education to occur (i.e., these places are moving into Education 3.0 as we speak).

Case Example: Exploring Tomorrow

As our first steps towards actively moving in the direction of Education 3.0 my colleagues Bryan Hallauer and Mark Malady and myself created an online course for parents and students called “Exploring Tomorrow.” Embedded are components of a Personalized System of Instruction; however, with some changes in areas like the medium used (e.g., online course) and with parental involvement to strengthen the course outcomes as students explore the world around them through a behavioral science lens.

Exploring Tomorrow (ET) is a 4-week online course that teaches achievement through goal selection and measurement relative to each parent-student dyad’s unique situation, interests, and values. The person-centered curriculum was designed using the accumulation of over 55 years of behavioral science and technology designed to lead participants through a guided conversation about what is truly meaningful, and how to align everyday life with those things. Upon completion of this course, participants will have objective self-generated data that can be used for creating a path towards future aspirations along with the tools to set new goals, change current goals and monitor progress. 

Establishing These Practices In Our System

  1. The Center on Innovations in Learning provide a free Handbook on Personalized Learning for States, Districts, and Schools (2016) complete with action steps to move forward on adopting any of the models.
  2. We are open to any collaborative efforts on implementing and adapting such systems for learners of all ages. These are strategic and collaborative partnerships that can start with reaching out to us and letting us know what cool projects you and your team are currently working towards.
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Murphy, M., Redding, S., Twyman, J. (2016). Handbook on personalized learning for states, districts, and school. Philadelphia, PA: Center on Innovations in Learning, Temple University; Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Twyman, J. S. (2014a). Competency-based education: Supporting personalized learning. Connect: Making Learning Personal. Center on Innovations in Learning.

Twyman, J. S. (2014b). Envisioning education 3.0: The fusion of behavior analysis, learning science and technology. Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis, 40, 20-38.

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