Magazine menu

Fri, Jul

Education Transformation: From One Size Fits All to Student-Centered Learning


As I travel throughout the country and the world, I am excited by the work of a few tireless education pioneers and innovators who are shaping future education to transform learning for future generations of students through a focus on student outcomes, measuring outcomes and performance by how well students demonstrate high levels of knowledge and skills through personalized pathways and their ability to show what they know in performance-based assessments.

The three areas that intersect to create the perfect storm for this education transformation are: personalization, blended learning and competency education. The power of each moves us away from the monolithic, industrialized factory model of schooling and toward a rich, flexible learning environment in which students move through advancing mastery along learning pathways, grounded in curricula designed with strong standards and required skills but with the flexibility of personalized experiences and heightened student voices and choices.


Personalization theory pushes educators to think outside the box by emphasizing the need for learners to be involved in designing their own learning processes (Campbell & Robinson, 2007). In a personalized learning environment, learners have agency to set their own goals for learning, create a reflective process during their journey to attain those goals and be flexible enough to take their learning outside the confines of the traditional classroom.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (2006), there are five phases of personalized learning:

  • Assessment: Teacher and students work together in a formative manner to identify strengths and weaknesses.
  • Teaching and learning: Teachers and students select learning strategies.
  • Curriculum choice: Student chooses the curriculum, creating a pathway for student choice.
  • Radical departure from typical education models: Built on student progress, this phase provides teachers the flexibility to choose their own teaching strategies.
  • Education beyond the classroom: Using social and community connections, students personalize their surroundings (with the help of the teacher, when needed) to create their ideal learning environment.

Many educators surveyed for a recent report from the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) shared their understanding of how personalization can transform learning:

  • Personalization is an understanding that tapping into unique interests, individual styles and specific needs can make work and learning meaningful and authentic.
  • Personalization is asking each student, “What is best for you?”
  • Personalization is about relationships, knowing each individual student based on his or her academic and personal interests.
  • Personalization is students accessing a curriculum that meets their individual needs, reflects their zones of proximal development and gives them the opportunity to access resources to progress at their personal rates of learning.
  • Personalization is engaging students with personal learner plans in which contributions from students, parents, support staff and teachers provide a path for ubiquitous learning to address students’ individual needs, interests and learning styles.
  • Personalization is all students learning at their own individual paces using the tools that help them learn and augment their strengths.
  • Personalization is meeting learners where they are, determining where they need to be and finding and scaffolding the right zones of proximal development to get them there.

As can be seen by some of the responses from the field above, differentiation is part of personalizing learning, and it is essential in education. Many practitioners look to meet each student’s needs via his or her zone of proximal development. Research supporting personalized learning includes Bloom’s classic 2 sigma learning studies, in which students who were tutored at a one-to-one ratio achieved scores two standard deviations above those of students who had learned in a traditional school setting of a 30-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio (Bloom, 1984). The implications of the 2 sigma learning studies push educators to think about the shifting role of the traditional teacher from provider of knowledge to a group of students to tutor of each and every student, offering personalized learning to each learner based on his/her mastery-learning trajectory.

Without personalization, there is a gap between the individual student, his or her learning and the support students need to succeed in a way that makes sense to their interests. Personalization allows students to take ownership of their learning, giving them the opportunity to feel valued, motivated, in control. It also changes the dynamic between the teacher and the student.

What does personalization look like? Personalized learning…

  • Is an education full of variety and choice.
  • Always involves a relationship between the teacher and the student, as well as a strong sense of community within the class as a whole.
  • Is a space where students have access to a wide range of subjects that meet their pathway needs and interests.
  • Is, within each subject, students’ right to access learning experiences that enable them to progress according to their ability levels.
  • Is an opportunity for students to make decisions about the direction of their learning; for example, they can pick the topic they are going to research for an assignment, the book for their book chats and how they want to write the procedures for their lab work.
  • Is a dynamic learning opportunity that provides students with content that addresses their personal learning needs based on their interests, parental input and teacher observation as well as assessment data, which is the most important element.
  • Is students managing their own work calendars and daily schedules to stay on track, so they are free to move through courses at their own paces and have individualized learning paths and intervention plans.
  • Is students using personal learning tools, such as mobile devices, to individualize their learning and improve communication within the school community.
  • Is the school community’s inclusion of multiple layers of support.
  • Is students interacting and collaborating with each other and with the content.
  • Emphasizes teachers interacting with the content, with students and with other teachers.
  • Necessitates social-emotional connections built between students and teachers as the foundation of their work together.
  • Means various starting points within content, varied amounts of guided practice and independent practice as needed.

Personalization is about many ideas. It is about…

  • Discovering students’ prior knowledge of and experience with the content they are about to learn and meeting them where they are.
  • Guiding students to make healthy academic decisions.
  • Developing learning communities that celebrate the individuality and contributions of each student.
  • Consolidating forms of student learning data so that they are useful for planning for personalized instruction.

To personalize learning is to encourage students to develop clear goals and expectations for achievement and to support them to make good decisions in a challenging and rigorous learning environment. It’s a space where teachers are allowed the time they need to work with students; design instruction that is rigorous, flexible and adaptable; and focus on critical thinking and meta-cognitive practices to develop stronger, deeper, independent learning.

Blended Learning

It is difficult to imagine being able to implement personalized learning without technology. The tools in blended and online learning can support flexible pacing, differentiated instruction, immediate interventions and anywhere, anytime learning.

What is most important is to understand the nuanced differences between blended learning models and the instructional designs that can enable personalized learning and how personalized learning itself can be a driving concept for new learning models. Blended learning is a combination of face-to-face learning experiences and online learning platforms, content and tools for personalizing instruction. True blended learning is a modality for realizing a fundamental shift in the instructional model toward personalized learning.

It is important to examine blended learning models to evaluate the extent to which high-quality implementations create major shifts in the instructional design—from the differences in educator roles in traditional, one-size-fits-all classrooms (one teacher, one textbook, one pathway to learning objectives)—and transform learning experiences to result in personalized learning opportunities to optimize teaching and learning. Thus, blended learning is about the transformation of the instructional design toward personalized learning with teachers and students harnessing advanced technological tools to accomplish the shift toward personalization by design.

Blended learning instructional designs leverage the strengths of both the classroom and online modalities. The blended learning instructional model shifts have the potential to result in “learning optimization” to create more personalized learning opportunities.

Additionally, these blended learning designs should allow for greater interactions throughout the learning process between students and teachers, students and other students, students and increased content resources and pathways and students and outside resources (experts, courses, community resources, etc.), which occur at any time and place and provide greater access to data about real-time proficiency levels for students, teachers, parents and administrators.

Blended learning should focus across students’ personalized learning maps (in K–12 education) on what they have demonstrated they know, what they can do and where they are going, in a student profile—and work to fill in gaps and accelerate learning opportunities to keep every student on pace toward an on-time graduation. This student profile is an important cornerstone for blended learning environments to be able to examine how students are moving along in their progress toward achieving standards and also where the gaps are in their knowledge that must be addressed. Blended learning instructional designs should require every student’s progress to be closely monitored and any gaps to be filled upon their identification. Understanding exactly where a student enters the program through a benchmark or entry assessment to determine progress on mastery is a key design element for student-centered blended programs. As students move through the learning progressions and standards, their student profiles will indicate their mastery levels and provide evidence of how they demonstrated competence based on a performance or project. Thus, student profiles also include evidence of the work, usually captured within an electronic portfolio (e-portfolio) system that showcases examples of the student’s projects, writing and demonstrations. When students have gaps in proficiency across the learning progressions, it is important to address these so that they have the foundations for moving ahead and staying on track for future learning. Building on competency-based instructional designs, blended learning should ensure that failure is not an option and offer immediate interventions when a student is not demonstrating mastery.

There are operational implications of blended learning instructional models, including structural changes that can explore more effective use of human capital/talent, facilities, time, resources and technology to support personalized learning. When implemented effectively, a blended learning program can make better use of instructional resources and facilities and increase content and course availability, thus speeding up students’ pathways to graduation ( EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2004).

Horn and Staker’s definition expresses that “blended learning is any time a student learns, at least in part, at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and, at least in part, through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace. The modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience” (Clayton Christensen Institute, 2013, p. 9).

The most important component of the definition is the element of student control, which highlights that blended learning designs need to shift instructional models to enable increased student-centered learning so that students have increased control over the time, place, path and/or pace of their learning pathways.

The key to ensuring that blended learning is beneficial to students is to focus on how it enables personalized learning and instruction. Blended learning is not teachers simply putting lesson plans or content resources online. It is not just having teachers recording lessons so that all students do the exact same lesson in the same format with the same pacing each day. One-to-one laptop or tablet initiatives or students using the latest technological devices, software or digital content alone does not equal a blended learning model. While there may be certain educational benefits to these examples of integrating technology into education, such as increased learner engagement (Taylor & Parsons, 2011), the concept and definition of blended learning is more focused on transforming instructional models toward student-centered learning.

Blended learning involves an explicit shift of the classroom-level instructional design to optimize and personalize student learning. Blended learning implementations should provide greater student control and flexibility in pathways for how students learn, where and when students learn and how they demonstrate mastery.

In this way, blended learning optimizes teaching and student-centered learning. It is learning beyond a single textbook. Think about how difficult it is for a teacher to try to personalize learning without the underpinning technologies to support the data-driven instruction required for differentiated strategies. It is very difficult for a teacher to personalize instruction for each individual student in a class of 25 students in a brick-and-mortar classroom using only a single textbook. It can be done, but it is incredibly demanding and challenging. The technology itself is not a silver bullet.

In blended learning environments, the educator optimizes learning for students by assessing progress and providing supports. In these new models, students are supported and interventions are wrapped around the student-centered instructional models at every point along the learning trajectories. All of these things can be done in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, but one of the great benefits of blended learning is that the technology helps to provide teachers with data, expand student choices for educational resources and learning materials and provide opportunities for students to practice and to demonstrate high levels of performance. However, blended learning isn’t about the technology; rather, it is about empowering educators to better understand how to support and differentiate instruction for kids and make their learning experiences engaging and meaningful.

In blended learning, it is the magic of optimizing the face-to-face classroom with instructional models for personalized learning for teachers who use online learning modalities and advanced technologies to accelerate and improve individualized learning experiences for each and every student, with real-time data on exactly how well each student is progressing.

A year-long study of blended learning in New York City identified the following six elements as necessary for effective planning and implementation of a blended learning program:

Leadership – Systematic, committed and supportive leadership is the first component needed for the successful implementation of a blended learning initiative in a school. Leadership is the foundation from which develop all of the other components that lead to the successful implementation and adoption of blended learning by a school’s teachers and staff.

Successful leaders collaboratively identify common goals and objectives regarding blended learning and then clearly articulate and communicate those goals and objectives with involved staff. Once the goals are written, formal and informal processes are established that track and monitor progress towards the goals both weekly and monthly.

Professional Development – A coordinated, intentional and systematic professional development plan based on stated goals should be in place for each lab school, which includes both formal and informal as well as initial and ongoing professional development.

After a definition of blended learning is agreed upon, goals are set and a blended learning model is chosen, a professional development plan for both school leaders and participating teachers should be developed. Professional development, both formal and informal and for both leaders and teachers, is a key component for ongoing goal implementation.

Teaching/Instructional Practice – The classroom teacher is essential to blended learning implementation. Teachers will need to understand and believe in the pedagogical shift in their teaching to successfully transform their classrooms and teaching to a blended model.

The blended model(s) chosen for implementation will determine how teachers organize their classrooms, schedule their days, design curricula, use digital content and data and transform their teaching. Teaching pedagogy and strategies will also change. Types of strategies may include student grouping, peer-to-peer interaction and personalizing and customizing student learning.

Each blended learning model will require all teachers to make a shift in their teaching and instructional practices. The adopted pedagogical approaches and the classroom teacher’s practices will be the most important pieces to the successful implementation of blended learning.

Operations, Administrative Systems and Policies – Successful implementation of blended learning requires the use of digital learning systems that provide teachers, school administrators, students and parents with real-time student progress information and the ability to easily adapt content and instruction based on student performance.

Administrative systems include learning management , content management and student information systems.

Additionally, new educational models such as blended and online learning options require the review of existing teaching and learning policies and, potentially, revising existing policies or creating new ones, to foster innovation, teacher empowerment and successful implementations. Examples of policies that may need to be addressed include but are not limited to: seat-time as a measure of student performance and funding; length of time that a student has to complete required courses; scheduling availability of courses; instructional credentials; professional development to support blended and online teachers; and access to required technologies.

Content – The decision to buy or build digital content is essential in the implementation of online and blended learning programs. Teachers may use content from an online provider, create their own or use a combination of both.

Technology – Reliable technology infrastructure is required for the successful implementation of blended learning. This includes a dependable telecommunications network and both software and hardware that can be accessed and utilized by students and teachers. In addition to the technology infrastructure, educators and students need effective technology support to maintain positive momentum in teaching and learning in a digital environment.

Competency Education

Competency-based learning is a system of education, often referred to as proficiency- or mastery-based, in which students advance and move ahead on their lessons based on their demonstration of mastery. In order for students to progress at a meaningful pace, schools and teachers provide differentiated instruction and support. People across the field of K–12 education are using the terms competency-based, proficiency-based, mastery-based and performance-based interchangeably in their own contexts—however, I use the term competency education.

In 2011, 100 innovators in competency education came together for the first time. At that meeting, participants fine-tuned a working definition of high-quality competency education:

  • Students advance upon mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and is a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include the application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Competency education builds upon standards reforms, offering a new value proposition for our education system. Frequently, competency education is described as simply flexibility in awarding credit or defined as an alternative to the Carnegie unit. Yet this does not capture the depth of the transformation of our education system from a time-based to a learning-based system. Competency education also hold promise as districts explore new ways to expand and enrich support to students, challenging the assumption that all learning takes place within the classroom. Competency-based approaches are being used at all ages from elementary to graduate school level, focusing the attention of teachers, students, parents and the broader community on students’ mastering measurable learning topics.

It is vitally important for our country to move away from the restrictions of a time-based system. The reasons are many:

  • To ensure that all students succeed in building college and career readiness, consistent with the common core of world-class knowledge and skills;
  • To take advantage of the extraordinary technological advances in online learning for personalization, allowing students to learn at their own paces, any time and everywhere.
  • To provide greater flexibility for students who would otherwise not graduate from high school because they have to work or care for their families;
  • Many states are adjusting their state policies to allow for competency education innovations. Ohio’s Credit Flex policy requires districts and schools to provide different ways to earn high school credit. New Hampshire is implementing sweeping reforms to make all high school competency-based.

In a competency-based education system, students understand learning objectives and also know what they must “know and show” to be proficient. If students do not demonstrate adequate proficiency to advance, they must be provided with supports and interventions that help them fill the gaps in their knowledge and skills.

When we think about the traditional time-based system, students essentially have variable amounts of learning in fixed amounts of time, quite simply allowing for them to pass through systems with varying levels of gaps in their knowledge. For example, in a time-based system, even a B average in a course assumes that the student is possibly missing 15 to 20 percent of the content knowledge. Students are passed with Cs and Ds who are then unprepared for their next courses.

Competency-based models rely on students’ demonstrating their competencies toward the attainment of a degree or diploma, in both K–12 and higher education. Students may take multiple pathways to acquire competencies. Competency education supports new, student-centered learning models that bridge formal and informal learning, allowing students to demonstrate competency in a wide variety of ways by learning content through different modalities, experiences and methods both within and outside of school walls. The same high standards that exist for graduating are set for all students in order to maintain rigor, but students have greater voices and choices in how, where, when and what they are learning to achieve competency (aligned to the standards) and how they demonstrate mastery through their performance.

Competency education models challenge a key policy issue: awarding credit based on the amount of time a student is in a seat, or seat-time, for each course, regardless of what was learned. Most blended learning models occur within classrooms. However, there is a need for blended learning using competency-based approaches to provide flexibility for learning to take place both inside and outside of the school building to give students control and flexibility over learning path, place and pace. Right now, seat-time policies at the local and state levels may limit a student’s ability to engage in an internship while attending a blended learning high school or to earn credit while learning outside of the traditional school day. If the learning were based on students’ demonstrated competencies—with adequate policies for quality, accountability and assessment of learning—students could acquire knowledge from both formal and informal settings and demonstrate the required knowledge for school credits. Competency education models are a foundation for transforming and opening anytime, everywhere learning that enables personalized learning in powerful ways.

New Designs Require New Performance Metrics

Systems of assessment are needed to understand quality assurance based on outcomes. These would provide data upon each student’s entry into a school system through adaptive assessments that showed gaps in or mastery of proficiencies across the K–12 continuum; ongoing performance-based assessments through which students would demonstrate mastery as exhibited in their work products; formative assessments that would reflect student proficiency and skills; and summative end-of-unit or end-of-course validations assessments that would provide a much more comprehensive set of data and information for understanding student learning outcomes and growth trajectories. Rolling up students’ individual proficiency- and standards-based outcomes data to the school level could provide a better way to assess how well students are served by a school or program.

School accountability that judges students by age-based cohort groups, or by meeting percentiles of proficiency rather than demonstrating proficiency at a standards-based level, makes it very difficult to understand the success of schools that are moving students toward proficiency and mastery at accelerated levels of individual student growth, especially for students who have historically been behind or ahead of grade level. Systems of assessment, understanding proficiency levels upon student entry, identifying gaps, measuring real progress over smaller increments of time and collecting standards-based data on proficiency toward college and career-readiness through performance-based assessments, along with validating data, are all essential to knowing how well a student is doing in a more holistic way—and to providing robust accountability based on student outcomes.

Recognizing the limitations of the current accountability model based on a single assessment and using age-based cohorts, an increasing number of states are considering and moving towards new models of accountability that are focused on measuring student growth—how much a student has learned over a period of time. Still, the usual time period is the year between annual state assessments. Ideally, these growth models would measure real learning by individual students in a way that is easy to explain and analyze. The limitations of today’s state systems mean that this ideal is rarely achieved. The result is that the information we have for evaluating schools does not paint a complete picture in most states.

Education leaders in numerous states are considering better approaches to evaluating student performance outcomes. A key starting point for evaluating online schools’ effectiveness is measures of proficiency. Beyond proficiency, or how much a student knows at a distinct point in time, there are other measures of student learning that examine students’ growth in knowledge, skills and deeper learning to prepare them for college and careers over time. Many states are moving toward formally using multiple measures of student learning in assessing outcomes and performance.

Ongoing investigation in this area by iNACOL has identified multiple outcomes-based measures that should be explored more closely when moving toward quality assurance and evaluations of schools:

  • Proficiency
  • Individual student growth along a trajectory
  • Graduation rates
  • College and career readiness
  • Closing the achievement gap
  • Fidelity to a student’s academic goals

How can educators and policymakers address quality assurance by understanding these issues and mitigating risks? To address these quality assurance questions requires collecting and reporting more transparent data, implementing multiple measures of student performance, rethinking school evaluation and clarifying which performance metrics are most important for creating a more robust benchmarking picture of performance.

A Vision for Tomorrow's Schools, Today

Central to my work—and the work of colleagues across the field—is the transformation of K–12 education into a student-centered learning system to level the playing field for students through the creation of new learning models and to ensure that students everywhere have access to a world-class education that prepares them for a lifetime of success, no matter their geographic location or economic situation.

And what does this vision look like?

New learning models personalize learning using competency-based approaches supported by blended and online learning modalities and environments.

Teachers use technology daily to analyze and utilize real-time data to differentiate instruction, customize learning and engage students in deeper learning. All students are responsible for their own learning and work at their own paces by demonstrating mastery of required concepts, resulting in higher achievement and ensuring that all students are prepared for both college and careers.

The ultimate power of blended and online learning lies in their potential to transform the education system and enable higher levels of learning through competency-based approaches. Technology-based models can allow for the rapid capture of student performance data and differentiated instruction tailored to the specific needs of individual students. By adapting instruction to reflect the skills and knowledge students have mastered, blended and online models have the potential to keep students engaged and supported as they learn and to help them progress at their own pace, leading to dramatically higher levels of learning and attainment.

To pave the way for a truly student-centered future for our schools, it is imperative that policymakers work to remove barriers to innovation and remain focused on doing what is right for kids in order to make certain that they have access to world-class education. Five steps that must be considered as we move forward in creating or adjusting policies and legislation governing our schools are:

  • Shift to competency-based education from seat-time.
  • Increase access for each student and permit the entire continuum of student-centered online and blended learning.
  • Design outcomes-based accountability and funding incentives.
  • Increase access to excellent, effective teachers.
  • Provide room for innovation.

We are only just beginning to see what is possible when schools are established to provide their teachers and students with tools and systems that can remove barriers to the ultimate success of both for all. Encouraging innovation and supporting the work of the pioneers who are creating next-generation learning environments for our kids will strengthen not only our schools but also our communities and states as we move toward a more global workforce and society.

We must transform our education system to become student-centered and competency-based such that ultimately, success will be the only option.


Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 Sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4–16.

Campbell, R. J., & Robinson, W. (2007). Personalised learning: Ambiguities in theory and practice. British Journal of Educational Studies, 55(2), 135–154. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8527.2007.00370.x

Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. (2013). Is K-12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction of the theory of hybrids. San Mateo, CA: M. Horn, & H. Staker. Retrieved from

EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. (2004). Research Bulletin: Blended Learning, 2004(7). Louisville, CO: C. Dziuban, J. Hartman, & P. Moskal. Retrieved from

Miliband, D. (2006). Choice and voice in personalised learning: Schooling for tomorrow. In OECD (Eds.), Personalising Education (pp. 21-30). Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. Retrieved from

Taylor, L. & Parsons, J. (2011). Improving student engagement. Current Issues in Education, 14(1). Retrieved from

Susan Patrick is the president and CEO of the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL). iNACOL is a nonprofit providing policy advocacy, national quality standards, research on best practices, next-generation learning model professional development and networking, driving the emerging field of competency-based online and blended learning forward. Before joining iNACOL, Susan Patrick was the Director of Educational Technology at the US Department of Education.