Teacher Roles in Personalized Learning Environment

The digital world encourages teachers and students to reorient themselves to new ways of thinking about teaching and learning in higher education. As an educator, a teacher plays the role of a learning facilitator with technology to support student achievement (empowered learner, digital citizen, knowledge constructor, innovative designer, computational thinker, creative communicator, and global collaborator). Mainly, cultivating actual student agency in the learning process in personalized learning is essential. The goal of personalized learning is to engage students in co-creation, build the curricula on mutual interests, and develop a person’s abilities and strengths, thus igniting intrinsic motivation for success and contribution. This fact aligns with the ISTE Standards for Educators, particularly an educator as a facilitator (ISTE, 2022), point 2.6.a, 2.6.b, 2.6.c, and 2.6.d:

2.6.a. Foster a culture where students take ownership of their learning goals and outcomes in independent and group settings.

2.6.b. Manage the use of technology and student learning strategies in digital platforms, virtual environments, hands-on maker spaces, or in the field.

2.6.c. Create learning opportunities that challenge students to use a design process and computational thinking to innovate and solve problems.

2.6.d. Model and nurture creativity and creative expression to communicate ideas, knowledge, or connections.

Differentiation vs. Individualization vs. Personalized Learning?

Before digging out further into the Personalized Learning classroom, let us see the comparison between differentiation, individualization, and personalization. With the ultimate goal of helping all students achieve their learning potential, educators have often adopted methods to differentiate instruction, that is, to design varied types of education to meet individual students’ learning needs and goals (Grant & Basye, 2014). In the 1960s and 1970s, approaches to differentiation became more formalized with the advent of individualized instruction. Although technically, the method included teaching strategies that met individual students’ needs, students usually worked through prepackaged materials. Grant and Basye (2014) state that personalized learning is a 21st-century model of differentiated instruction that addresses each student’s readiness, interest, and learning profile through differentiation of content, process, and product. Personalized learning is often conceived of as an instructional method incorporating technology and mobile devices to help all students achieve high levels of learning.

Moreover, Myers (2018) elaborates the definition of the respective terms. Differentiation is an instructional learning approach where the content, process, product, or learning environment is customized to the students in the classroom (Zmuda et al., 2015). More importantly, the teacher regulates the design and administration of the learning experience for groups of students (Green & Mahoney, 2017; Kallick & Zmuda, 2017). In the differentiated instructional approach, the learning targets are identical for all learners, but the learning modality varies based on the learner’s needs (Grant & Basye, 2014). Conversely, personalized learning provides students with agency and autonomy in their learning process as they design, analyze, and refine their demonstration of mastery (Kallick & Zmuda, 2017; Zmuda et al., 2015). With individualization, the teacher develops a learning “playlist” and assigns individual students to learn tasks, usually through a digital tool (Green & Mahoney, 2017; Zmuda et al., 2015). The student controls the pace of their learning and gives the student agency in their learning process while co-create their learning path (Green & Mahoney, 2017); and engagement is based on relevancy to the student not completing the given task (Zmuda et al., 2015). Table 1 compares the instructional approach to differentiation, individualization, and personalization (Bray, 2018; Grant & Basye, 2014; Myers, 2018).

Table 1. Comparison of instructional approach to differentiation, individualization, and personalization

(Bray, 2018; Grant & Basye, 2014; Myers, 2018)

Teacher Roles in Personalized Learning Environments (PLE)

Myers (2018) claims that the rise in personalized learning environments shifts the teaching and learning paradigm (Bingham et al., 2018; O’Donoghue, 2009; Zmuda et al., 2015) and the pedagogical capacity of leaders and teachers (Zmuda et al., 2015). Notably, the teacher’s role in the classroom has shifted from a traditional to a personalized learning environment, as seen in Table 2.

Table 2. Components of Teachers’ Shifting Roles

Bishop et al. (2020) define personalized learning as an approach that encourages partnership between individual students and teachers in the learning design that emerges from students’ interests, questions, needs, and preferences to foster self-directed learning (Bray & McClaskey, 2016). These learning opportunities respond to the wide variance of students’ identities and needs (e.g., cultural, cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and moral) and often prioritize the development of twenty-first-century skills such as critical thinking, communication, creative thinking, and collaboration (Nikolic & Milovanovic, 2021).

Teachers are critical to personalized learning as they must deal with complex instructional design. This way, teachers must have good communication and collaboration skills by developing new pedagogical reflective thinking. This skill is used in mentoring learning, mediating values and social skills, and systematically evaluating the activities of students and teachers (Järvelä, 2006). Moreover, Bishop et al. (2020) summarize how teachers’ role in traditional classrooms differs from PLE. (See Personalized Learning Instructions Models: Do They Work for Higher Education? – Ignasia Yuyun). The teacher primarily determines learning objectives in traditional classroom settings. On the other hand, the learning objectives on individual students’ questions, interests, and aspirations are the core of PLEs. Therefore, teachers in PLEs are expected to serve as facilitators of “inquiry, problem-solving, and creative expression” (DiMartino & Clarke, 2008). Similarly, teachers may become curators in PLEs by helping students access appropriate resources suited to their unique projects rather than preparing resources based on teacher-identified learning goals (Keefe & Jenkins, 2005). Finally, because personalized learning focuses on tailoring instruction to individual students rather than an entire class, teachers in PLEs play a role as coaches to the individual or small groups on project tasks, goals, and standards, as they forgo whole group instruction (Bray & McClaskey, 2015; Clarke, 2013; DiMartino & Clarke, 2008). Furthermore, since the PLE is closely related to student-directed learning (SDL), Hiemstra (2011) asserted that teachers have six instructional roles in SDL. The roles include content resource, resource locator, interest stimulator, positive attitude generator, creativity, critical thinking stimulator, and evaluation stimulator. To sum up, Bishop et al. (2020) revealed the teacher role in PLEs as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Teacher roles in personalized learning environments

(Bishop et al., 2020)

Amro and Borup (2019), through the interview session, revealed some responsibilities of teachers when using personalized learning software, including (a) orienting students to the software and learning expectations; (b) troubleshooting technical issues; (c) motivating students to fully engage with the software, (d) monitoring students’ behavior and personalized learning in the system; and (e) providing students with additional instruction in small groups or individually. These roles are proper to facilitate students using technology and learning strategies in digital platforms and virtual environments.

Overall, through the transition to a personalized learning model, shifts in roles will be encountered along with technological influences. Teachers facilitate the learning process instead of control of information and learning for the students. This way, teachers give room to develop students’ agency and autonomy as they co-create the student’s learning script. In this case, the leadership transformation is needed to support the teachers. Providing flexibility, time, and professional development will support the transformation and empower teachers. Notably, organizational strategy and change management connective tissue are badly needed to drive teachers to become leaders and vanguards of the shift.


Amro, F., & Borup, J. (2019). Exploring Blended Teacher Roles and Obstacles to Success When Using Personalized Learning Software. Journal of Online Learning Research, 5(3), 229–250.

Bingham, A. J., Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., & Hamilton, L. S. (2018). Ahead of the curve: Implementation challenges in personalized learning school models. Educational Policy, 32(3), 454-489.

Bishop, P. A., Downes, J. M., Netcoh, S., Farber, K., Demink-Carthew, J., Brown, T., & Mark, R. (2020). Teacher roles in personalized learning environments. Elementary School Journal, 121(2). https://doi.org/10.1086/711079

Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2016). Personalization vs . Differentiation vs . Individualization Report ( PDI ) v3. https://barbarabray.net/download/pdi-report-version-3/

Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2015). Make learning personal: The what, who, wow, where, and why. Corwin.

Clarke, J. H. (2013). Personalized learning: Student-designed pathways to high school graduation. Corwin.

DiMartino, J., & Clarke, J. H. (2008). Personalizing the high school experience for each student. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Grant, P., & Basye, D. (2014). Personalized learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology (First). International Society for Technology in Education.

Green, J., & Mahoney, S. (2017). Leading personalized learning: Digital programs help meet the needs of all students: Using technology to individualize learning environments. District Administration, 53(7), 52-53.

Hiemstra, R. (2011). Self-directed learning: Individualizing instruction—Most still do it wrong! International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, 8(1), 46–59.

ISTE. (2022). ISTE Standards: Educatorshttps://www.iste.org/standards/iste-standards-for-teachers

Järvelä, S. (2006). Personalized Learning? New Insights into Fostering Learning Capacity. In PERSONALISING EDUCATION (p. 126). Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. http://www.oecd.org/site/schoolingfortomorrowknowledgebase/themes/demand/41176687.pdf

Kallick, B., & Zmuda, A. (2017). Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with habits of mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Keefe, J. W., & Jenkins, J. M. (2005). Personalized instruction. Phi Delta Kappa.

Myers, R. G. (2018). Transitioning to a Personalized Learning Environment Leveraging One-to-One Devices [Kennesaw State University]. https://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/educleaddoc_etd/14/

Nikolic, T. M., & Milovanovic, M. (2021). Innovative Approach To Personalized Teaching and Learning in the Vuca World. 12th International Conference on eLearning, October, 60–65. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/355153719_INNOVATIVE_APPROACH_TO_PERSONALIZED_TEACHING_AND_LEARNING_IN_THE_VUCA_WORLD

 O’Donoghue, J. (2009). Technology-Supported environments for personalized learning: Methods and case studies. IGI Global.

TeachThought. (2022). Components of Teachers’ Shifting Roles. https://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/changing-role-teacher/

Zmuda, A., Curtis, G., & Ullman, D. (2015). Learning personalized: The evolution of the contemporary classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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  1. Chelly Rody

    Very informative and insightful post! The section comparing differentiation, individualization and personalized learning is very helpful. Sometimes, these terms get used interchangeably but knowing the distinct differences between each one is important to note as we do our best to help our students. Indeed, the roles of both teachers and students are shifting and the tools available to us are also evolving. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Melissa

    I love the idea of teachers as curators. I’ve often thought of myself as a tour guide – especially when teaching history. The notion of being a curator is quite intriguing. Thank you for sharing such an informative and well written post.

  3. Gizem

    I didn’t have a chance to contemplate those three concepts before! Thank you Ignas! I believe it should be one of the primary responsibilities of an educator to adjust which one to use and when. I think an eclectic approach should even be considered.

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