Learning Disabilities

Personalized Learning and Students with Disabilities

Educators, parents, and others have struggled for decades to find the best ways to teach and support students with disabilities. These students can achieve at high levels if they receive specialized instruction, supports that build on their strengths and mitigate their challenges, and an environment that is engaging and sparks their desire to learn. Personalized learning systems can help educators provide these things when implemented appropriately. As personalized learning efforts expand across the nation, now is the time for educators, parents, and others to understand what personalized learning is, how it works, and how it can help students with disabilities succeed.

Now, more than ever, schools, districts and states are exploring and using personalized learning in classrooms all over the country. Learning aligns with interests, needs and skills, and takes place in an engaging environment where students gain a better understanding of their strengths.

Personalized Learning Defined

As the personalized learning movement is growing, the knowledge base supporting it continues to expand and become more refined. However, there is no single common definition of personalized learning used across the field. 

Instead, the definition varies across districts, states, and organizations who are involved in the implementation of personalized learning. To ground this work and focus our efforts, NCLD chose this definition of personalized learning:Students’ learning experiences – what they learn, and how, when, and where they learn it – are tailored to their individual needs, skills, and interests, and enable them to take ownership of their learning. Although where, when, and how they learn might vary according to their needs, students also develop deep connections to each other, their teachers and other adults.
[Students at the Center Overview: Engaging All students in College, Career, and Civic Success (Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future, 2013)]

In addition, we asked our consulting experts to reflect on four specific approaches to personalized learning described by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: learner profiles; personal learning paths; competency-based progressions; and flexible learning environments (see glossary, page 33). When we refer to personalized learning generally, any of these approaches can be utilized to fit the type of personalized learning a school or district is implementing. Where any of these approaches have unique implications, we specifically address that approach and use the corresponding terminology.

Benefits and Challenges of Personalized Learning

Considering the needs of students with disabilities in the design of the system requires honest conversations and dedicated action, not only about the benefits personalized learning can offer these students but also about the inherent challenges. The benefits and challenges often end up being two sides of the same coin—the potential of personalized learning and the work necessary to achieve that potential. In interviews expert practitioners, researchers, policy leaders, parents, and others, NCLD identified the following benefits and associated challenges for students with disabilities in these new systems:

A strengths-based, student-focused approach to education …… if we can prepare teachers to shift their practice and mindsets.
A more positive, engaging experience for parents ……if they are included as partners from the beginning.
Increased engagement and development of skills critical to 21st century success …… if we don’t lose sight of accountability
Continuous, ongoing support for students……if we invest in creating a sustainable system.
Multiple ways to access content……if accessibility is included in the initial strategic development.
Fuller inclusion……if we don’t lose sight of real student needs.
The value of special education principles……if we overcome rigidity.

Our Process

Over the last two years, NCLD set out to bring the voice of students with disabilities and their families into the discussion and determine how personalized learning systems can meet their needs.

NCLD spoke with advocates, parents, educators, experts and policymakers at both the state and federal levels to explore ways to ensure that personalized learning systems benefit students with disabilities.In this section, you will find resources for parents, educators, district leaders and states as they work to integrate personalized learning systems in their schools.

The Road Ahead

Through this work, NCLD aims to bridge the gap between knowledge and action so that educators are more prepared, parents are more informed, and policymakers are ready to design personalized learning systems where students with disabilities are able to fully participate, learn, and thrive.

NCLD’s work on personalized learning and students with disabilities will continue. To see more of what we’ve done, you can see our Personalized Learning blog series. And be sure to follow our Policy & Advocacy blog, where we will continue to share our ongoing work in several states.


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