Weaving Webs of Personalization

Topics: Future of Learning

When was the last time that you had an experience that felt as if it had been created just for you?

Customization and personalization, especially in terms of the consumer, have come to be almost common expectations in 2022. We are bombarded with personalized recommendations of all kinds, from movies to watch to products to buy. Services such as medical treatment are becoming personalized. Even our interpretations of objective fact have become increasingly personalized (or subjective) due to tailored recommendations for news and information.

It might be hard to remember, but this level of personalization and customization was not always the norm. Ten years ago, KnowledgeWorks’ third anchor forecast, Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem, explored the potentially disruptive power of creating highly personalized experiences. The forecast described the disruption, Customizable Value Webs, as follows: “Innovative, open business models will leverage complex networks of assets and relationships to create ultra-customer-centric experiences across industries.”

Customizable Value Webs remains a powerful disruptive force. However, the effects of this disruption on education are not always a given, and they present both challenges and opportunities to the field. As we reach the time horizon for the Recombinant Education forecast, we wanted to look back at the extent to which Customizable Value Webs has helped learners thrive or remained entrenched in inertia.

These disruptions were major societal shifts that promised to have broad impact on the future of learning. We forecast that they would cause deep, and sometimes unsettling, change. But we also made the case that education stakeholders could use future uncertainty to spark creativity, not only fear.

Opportunity: stitching together value propositions

The forecast saw opportunities for Customizable Value Webs to bring together various partners to engage students in personalized learning. Going beyond differentiated instruction, value webs made up of many different players, each with their own unique offerings, could be stitched together to create a unique, personalized learning journey for each learner. The forecast said, “Watch for schools to create distinct value propositions and identities and to partner with other organizations as part of complex value webs that offer personalized learning for all students.”

The notion of schools and other learning organizations offering distinct value propositions is still salient today. In a world with increased options for education, districts such as Upper Darby School District have been looking to develop their brand identity as a well to articulate their value and stand out from competition.

Schools and districts are also proactively seeking partnerships to bolster personalized learning opportunities. One such example is the Winchester Thurston School’s City as Campus initiative. This school develops partnerships with organizations throughout Pittsburgh to offer learners personalized experiences based on their individual needs, interests and goals. These personalized learning experiences leverage the partner organizations’ unique identities at the same time as they strengthen Winchester Thurston’s value proposition.

Challenge: weaving around obstacles

At the time the forecast was written, inertia seemed like a major challenge for education in responding to the Customized Value Webs disruption. The forecast cautioned, “If inertia prevents today’s public education system from responding constructively to disruptions, students, parents, and learning agents will create alternative value webs that may or may not be accessible to all.”

Inertia was and still is a major factor keeping education from fully leveraging possibilities for Customizable Value Webs. Public K-12 systems by and large lack the types of flexibility needed to create the ultra-customer-centric experiences imagined in this disruption and experienced in other sectors today.

To be sure, the movement towards personalization has been gaining momentum, with a recent poll conducted by the National School Boards Action Center showing that 74% of respondents agreed that “the lack of personalized learning focused on individual needs is a problem.” However, there are still foundational hurdles to delivering the ultra-customizable learning experiences that the forecast described. These hurdles relate to how current public K-12 education systems are designed. They include reliance on standardized, summative assessment systems; limited exposure to personalized learning frameworks during teacher pre-service certification; and credentialing systems that often ignore learning done during out-of-school time.

Beyond its current structures, public education has become a frontline in the ongoing culture wars. Its beleaguered position is charactered by the misrepresentation of Critical Race Theory, arguments around what can and cannot be taught in school and even opposition to social-emotional learning and whole-learner health. This type of resistance presents a significant obstacle for learners to access the types of ultra-customer-centric (or personalized) learning described in the disruption.

Despite these challenges, evidence of learning agents’ creating alternative value webs is emerging. As highlighted in KnowledgeWorks’ latest forecast, Imagining Liberatory Education Futures, there are a variety of scenarios in which education stakeholders might create alternative systems and structures to meet learners’ needs. In one of them, microstructures made up of hyper-local family and affinity groups would help weave value webs for students or cooperative webs of support, bringing together regional players such as in- and out-of-school time providers, community elders and local businesses to provide comprehensive learner supports. This kind of possibility is being brought to life by groups such as Brown Mamas, which combines the wisdom of Black elder women and new mothers to create resources to support the well-being of Black families, and The Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op, which created a remote learning pod to stay safe from the COVID-19 virus, teach in the Lakota language and integrate the Lakota culture into the curriculum.

A tangled web

The ability for schools and districts to create customizable value webs as described in the forecast seems to be moving ever closer to reality, but at a slower pace than anticipated.

At the time of its writing, this disruption presented a tangled web of future possibilities, and it largely still does. At one extreme, it presents a transformative force toward personalizing education and rethinking a school’s unique identity and value to a community. On the other extreme, it threatens to perpetuate inequities by offering alternative pathways to only a limited few. Despite this range of future possibilities, at its core the Customizable Value Webs disruption presents timeless questions about how education can best meet students’ needs, interests and goals and whether current public education systems will be able to do so for every learner.

This post is part of a seven-piece series reflecting on the state of the challenges and opportunities introduced in KnowledgeWorks’ third anchor forecast, Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem, published 10 years ago. Read the rest of the series: