Eric Westendorf
Eric Westendorf is the co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.
May 8

What is Curriculum-as-a-Service? (Part III)

Does CaaS support personalized learning?

In Part I, we explained that CaaS is about taking a systems-thinking approach to curriculum. In Part II, we looked at why this matters now. We took up the Pinterest Problem and explained how a systems-thinking approach brings the Pinterest Problem into the open.

In this post, we take up the question of personalized learning. Curriculum-as-a-Service shifts the way we think about curriculum, changing it from a static, paper-based product to an adaptable, cloud-based service. But does CaaS support personalized learning?

The answer is yes. To understand why, it’s important to make a distinction between means and ends. As Jim Shelton, the President of Education at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative explained this fall in the iNACOL keynote, “Too often when you say personalized learning, people think a kid, a screen, alone.”

Personalized learning as a means

This is personalized learning as a means. It’s learning that is focused on one modality for learning: the independent modality. Each student gets a stream of learning “objects” that matches his/her needs and each student works independently through the streams.


There is something exciting about this notion. Schools have traditionally functioned as one-size-fits-all factories, so it feels subversive to imagine flipping the script and using technology to customize an experience for each student.   

But personalized learning as a means is limiting. As a parent of three kids, I want a lot more from school. I want my kids to play, to interact with peers, to problem solve, to find meaning in the world, and to learn what it means to contribute. I don’t want their educational experience to take place in isolation, even though I know that independent learning should be part of the equation.

Personalized learning as an end

This is the problem with defining personalized learning as a means. It undermines the broader concept of personalized learningpersonalized learning as an end. Personalized learning as an end is about engendering ownership over learning; it’s about connecting learning with students’ lives in meaningful ways and treating each student as having distinct interests and needs.  

LEAP Innovations has a fantastic framework for defining personalized learning. They describe personalized learning as:

  • Learner connected: It connects learning to families, communities, and networks
  • Learner focused: It understands each individual learner’s needs, strengths, interests, and approaches to learning
  • Learner demonstrated: It allows learners to progress at their own pace based on demonstrated competencies
  • Learner led: It enables learners to take ownership of their learning so that it can dynamically adjust to their skills, curiosity, and goals

When we define personalized learning as an end, the notion of all-independent, all-the-time doesn't make sense.

“What this is about,” explained Jim Shelton in his iNACOL speech, “is empowering teachers. It’s about finally giving teachers the tools to do what they're asked to do each daychange lives.”

What teachers need is not more independent modality; they need the flexibility to orchestrate learning across the three core modalities.

Bringing personalized learning to life

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If you want to achieve personalized learning as an end, you need a mix of expert explanation (new concepts or skills), independent learning (the chance to connect the new with what you already know and then practice with it) and collaborative learning (the chance to apply it in the context of a team or community). Of course, different learning outcomes call for a different mix of the three.

Unfortunately, core curriculum in its traditional, paper-based format is inherently one-sized-fits-all. It wasn’t designed to enable and encourage adaptation or fluid movement between modalities. As a result, teachers have to create adaptations on their own if they want to personalize the curriculum, a feat which requires close to superhuman effort.

But what if flexibility across modalities was the default? What if curriculum made elegant adaptations easy for teachers?

When curriculum is in the cloud, it suddenly becomes possible to support teachers in moving flexibly between the three core modalities in the service of personalized learning.

The same content can be expressed in the teacher-led modality, the independent modality, and the collaborative modality. This not only saves teachers time, it frees them to think strategically about what mix of modalities will best serve their class and their individual students.

It also sets the stage for the application of machine learning.

Once a core curriculum is in the cloud, it becomes possible to collect data on teaching and learning and help teachers test and augment their intuition. Teachers can then ask: Which balance of modalities most highly correlates with student engagement and learning? Which student behaviors most highly correlate with low-levels of growth, where early interventions could have the biggest impact?   

The future of curriculum is personalized learning. But it's personalized in a way that empowers teachers to create powerful learning experiences that more powerfully connect with students’ lives.

In the next post, we’ll take up the topic of efficacy. How does CaaS help districts and teachers measure the efficacy of their decisions?

Read What is Curriculum-as-a-Service? Part I
Read What is Curriculum-as-a-Service? Part II

Eric Westendorf is the Co-Founder and CEO at LearnZillion