Operation Customized Learning: The Learning Genome Project

“We have organized schools not by how kids learn, they have been organized by an easy way to teach.” -Daggett

In September I mentioned a “hunch” I was having about education and learning.  Since September I have fleshed out that hunch into a business model, prototype, and wireframe and am currently working with a team of programmers to make it a reality.  Last night I presented this idea at the House of Genius and got some great feedback.  It made me want to know what my PLN geniuses thought about the idea!  I would love your input on this project as I move forward, are there things that aren’t clear in my explanation of what I am doing? Ideas for how to improve it? Recommendations?  Below is a little background as to the “why” I am pursuing this project along with a brief description of my solution.

Education is currently operating from a factory model where students are treated like widgets. We push them through a system and expect that the result will be “educated” citizens who graduate with the exact same skill set to go to college or get a job.  Compounding the problem is boxed curriculum that schools use to meet standards.  That boxed curriculum reaches one type of learner in one way.  It is scripted and artificially paced.  The problem: we aren’t dealing with widgets, we are dealing with children, each with different interests, learning styles, passions, abilities, and developmental levels.
As a result of this educational model we have uninspired, unmotivated students that aren’t truly educated.  We don’t teach them in a way that really equips them to be successful in life.  We teach them how to play the system. That if they read the bolded words in their textbook-they can correctly fill in the worksheet, if they memorize the worksheet they can successfully regurgitate it back on the test. Repeat the process and they can graduate with an impressive GPA. That kind of “education” can go directly from a students eyes to their hand, only occasionally taking up residence in their brains.  This is what school “success” has been defined by, and it is getting worse.

Sometimes students will get lucky and learn from a teacher that can draw out passion and inspire learning; but with increased standardization and testing, teachers don’t have time to differentiate for every student. What’s more, they don’t know what they don’t know and may not be able to find the perfect lesson/website/book/video/manipulative for the student.

As a teacher I am deeply concerned about individualizing learning as much as possible, recognizing that every one of my students had unique gifts, talents, passions and that they bring something to the world that no one else does.  I started thinking about how we have managed to customize everything from ringtones to hamburgers.  We have managed to customize absolutely everything in our worlds except for education.  Pandora is a great example, enter one song or artist that you enjoy and an entire “customized” playlist is created based on that one song.  You end up discovering artists and songs that you didn’t even know existed, and 9 times out of 10 it becomes a new favorite.  If we can do this for music, why can’t we do it for curriculum?  This is where my solution comes in, right now I’m calling it the Learning Genome.  The Learning Genome is a platform that allows a group of approved educators (experts) to tag curriculum based on a set of learning attributes (much in the way that music is tagged for Pandora).  This tagged curriculum works in tandem with a student profile, an individualized learning plan,  learning goals (that can be pulled from state standards or learning benchmarks), and a school profile.  Teachers can enter a lesson or book that a student enjoyed, and based on that input a customized curriculum can be created for every student.  Just like Pandora, the Learning Genome would allow for multiple learning channels. The multiple channels are essential because students have a variety of interests and learning modalities.  Now teachers don’t have to endlessly search for the perfect curriculum for a student, the results are delivered to them.  Differentiation within the classroom becomes much easier.  Teachers can tailor curriculum to meet the individual needs of students in their classroom. Every child benefits from the ability to learn in a way that makes sense to them.
I’m working to make the Learning Genome completely free for educators (and parents/homeschool educators) to use.  The curriculum delivered will be a mixture of free/open-source and paid-for content (lessons, books, websites, videos, manipulatives, etc.).   The larger vision of the Learning Genome is to make it a complete learning management system complete with a virtual mentor program (Twitacad), electronic portfolios, blogs, wikis, planners, and an ability tracking system.  Those additional features will be added after the “hub” of the Learning Genome is in place.

The Learning Genome will be available to every school, everywhere. To fully realize the vision of customized education, I am working with a team in Colorado to start a school that will use the Learning Genome as the foundation for individualized learning.

As I said, this is a brief overview of a REALLY big project but I would appreciate any first thoughts that you have: good, bad, and ugly (but not too ugly 😉 ).



  1. Sounds very interesting and creative! Perhaps you could leverage the software that Amazon uses to make books suggestions? Would you have to create a database of topics or do you plan to buy that?
    Good luck Kelly!

    1. Sal, Thanks for the recommendation, I’m looking into the different technologies that currently exist to see which of them we can piggy back on. The database of topics is something that I (and many, many other educators) will create.

  2. Sounds great! Sound very Montessorri as well. “follow the child…” couple of thoughts. Can teachers upload lessons and unit plans of their own creation for tagging? If so could those things be shared and/or kept private? Will there be copyright issues? Will you have an online multimedia component? In other words could videos or multimedia be built in? Could the lessons be delivered right from the site?

    1. Kimberly, yes, I suspect that montessorri, homeschool, and other more student-centered approaches will go crazy for this. Even within the public school, more traditional structure, my hope is that teachers can use it as a tool to differentiate for students. To answer your questions: yes, teachers will be able to upload lessons and units of their own creation for tagging under a creative commons license. The system will not allow for “private” lessons, the point is to make all content available for the students who need it. Yes, there will be a multimedia and in-frame component so everything can be delivered directly through the platform.

  3. This is very exciting! As a teacher, I want to be able to meet each of my students where they’re at, but I’m often overwhelmed by the variables at play that make it difficult (and at times, impossible).

    I look forward to seeing this happen!

      1. What you need is a framework of lessons that are sequenced and inter-related, and a user system like wikipedia for education. If every child had a flash drive sized history of his knowledge base and developmental patterns that was automatically updated and recorded, the next most important could be determined. Every lesson would use multimedia reinforcement a graphic explanation of the material. If authors were rewarded like music authors every time their lesson is used. It could develop into a job machine.

  4. Sounds like a wonderful idea Kelly! One question would be how would it be paced for individual students and would it cover certain topic areas or all areas that students “need” to learn? Look forward to seeing and hearing more as your project comes to fruition!

    1. Andrew, thanks for the comment. Without giving too much of the process away at this point, the algorithm will be able to track where a student is in their learning through the ILP portion of the Learning Genome.

  5. Wonderful idea. BHOG. In my view you could improve the odds by building on something already out there that does some of it your tasks well. Easier to get uptake/usage and therefore resourcing if you extend/build on an existing foundation. I suggest you look in the education domain, possibly OS, definitely modular, maybe an existing education cloud offering (e.g. Google Apps4E).

  6. Fascinating concept! Our school is implementing an RtI program, so I’m wondering if there would be an aspect to this project that would incorporate data-collecting. That seems to be a logical step in the process of tailoring the curriculum this way.

    1. Yes, there will be opportunities for data collection…however how this data is collected and how it informs learning will likely look quite different than what is most common in schools.

  7. Here is how you change the game.
    1) Ask all teachers to have collaborative activities every week (or every day) as part of their plan.
    2) Ask all teachers to have every student “publish” their work at least once a month if not more often. The work they publish for others to see should allow them to choose the topic as much as possible. The publishing can be putting it on the wall or on a table in the hallway or on a blog. Just make sure others can see it.
    Points 1 and 2 require zero technology, but can benefit from as much technology as is available. Goto DrDougGreen.Com for bite-sized professional development.

  8. Very intriguing. Might this (or something like it) become a cornerstone in the future of education? Interesting implications for students with learning differences, too. Hmmm….

  9. Fabulous idea and very timely. Key to this will be the metacognitive process for learners. Training learners to recognize how they learn best and to develop their own plan for individualized learning. Recently in my class I have begun to use learning journals. Students explain what they are currently learning and then articulate what they are finding easy and what remains a challenge. They then must come up with a plan to address the challenge. This is a powerful process. We do this at the beginning of the week. At the end of the week students assess and reflect on their plan. I have learned more about my students from this than any other assessment tool. I will write a post about this tomorrow.

    1. Heidi, I agree! Metacognition is going to be a HUGE key to making all of this work. In the school model I am creating that individualized learning plan is created collaboratively with teachers, students, and parents involved.
      I love the way you are using learning journals for reflection on learning! Look forward to the post!

  10. This project sounds like a good resource for teachers to use to engage students in the lessons. Wouldn’t it be very time consuming though for a teacher to upload somthing about every pupil when there is an average of 30 pupils in a class?

    1. Hi Science O Education, no more time consuming than the data that we already collect about students. We already have student profiles, IEP’s, and an assortment of formative assessment that we collect on students. This just asks for all of that information in a different form. Instead of getting stuffed in a file folder it gets added to online. The great thing is that once a student is in the system, it is just a matter of updating the information from year to year, not re-writing it.

  11. looks fantastic kelly, need to read in greater detail but the idea of meeting the needs of the individual is an educational must. one i struggle with every day. keep up the good work, i believe inyour idea and you.

  12. ah. bravo sweet.

    sounds similar to school of one. have you gotten any insight from them? did you go to their meet up in denver last week? one of our parents went and she’s incredible.. i’m sure she’d chat with you about it if you like.

    1. Thank you Monika. Yes, the idea itself is similar to School of One, the difference being that it will not be test/assessment driven and it will access more content than School of One. I want this pulling from EVERY curriculum source not just the state bank of curriculum. I missed the meetup but would love the parent contact if you have it!

  13. This is great thinking, and very similar to the School of One. The operating platform for school of one was built by Wireless Generation. In my own experience, classroom teachers tend to bristle at the School of One idea/concept. I think if it were coupled with a Challenge Based Learning model, though, it would be better received. In that model, teachers would be facilitating students’ progressions through challenges while the “genome” would be helping them identify specific learning experiences that would ease the decision-making process.

    1. I would agree Matt. I think the bristle at School of One is that the model appears to take the teacher out of the equation. This is not what I am recommending. Challenge/problem/inquiry based model is where I am headed. Teachers as facilitators is the perfect wording for that, the Genome is simply a way for teachers to be better equipped to meet the diverse needs of a classroom.

  14. Kelly, you are so inspirational. I am exhausted at the thought of all this, but it would be fantastic. I generally have 2-3 variations of a given lesson/activity but even that takes planning and searching and still does not meet the needs of everyone. I look forward to hearing more about this project.

    1. Thank you Jennifer! It is an exhausting task when just one person is working on it, but to crowdsource it and have us all contributing, it will be manageable! I often get stuck into that 2-3 variations as well…there just isn’t enough time and we don’t always know what we don’t know. My hope is that the Learning Genome will make it possible to truly customize learning for every student.

  15. Wow Kelly! This is the most awesome thing about learning that I think I have ever come across. It should absolutely revolutionize learning, education and schooling. Your passion, commitment and sheer genius is incredible.

  16. This sounds very interesting but I am unclear as what the teacher’s role will be? (Perhaps I’m not thinking outside the box enough.) Will there still be a classroom with a teacher trying to meet an objective? And if so, will students be grouped according to the objectives they are trying to learn?

    1. Ana, yes it will not work without teachers. In this model teachers act more as apprentices of learning. They are dicipling kids in that learning. Learning goals and objectives are still in place, students will be on their own learning path but will often be “grouped” based on a shared inquiry starting point.

  17. I think it’s probably one “widget” towards a better solution. However, to borrow a thought from a friend, if you only do what you suggest, you are only tinkering with the established model and you would be doomed to fail. Perhaps another step towards what you are attempting to do, is to drop the reference to any terms related to today’s schools. As long as you include them, people’s stereotypical thoughts on school will reinforce the idea of just tinkering with the old model.

    1. Funny you should say that Dr. Bob. In the full model of the Learning Genome there is not reference to terms related to schools as we know them. Teachers become lead learners, students- learners, and learning-life. This is really a return to a very OLD model. It used to be that there was no language for religion or education because both were simply life. I want to return to that. Thank you for the input!

  18. Hi Kelly. How do teacher access the students? Is there anymore exams? Can this be applied to technical subjects, ie Maths, Accounting? Please brief me more of the LG. Thank you and good luck

  19. Kelly,
    i remember when you first began posting about your ideas and I know that many students will benefit because as you’ve said schools are not factories. We need multiple approaches for kids to be successful because they can be. I think one of our problems as a system is we collect data and don’t know what to do with it. Good luck, will be following you with this and your success will mean so much to so many.

  20. First thought is that this is really blue-sky mining but yet, you make it sound do-able so good luck on this great initiative.

    One of the challenges is that teachers are accountable for reporting and standardised testing. so, it is possible that a kid’s customised curriculum misses out on certain areas at the time of testing – regardless of how well he’s/she’s doing in other areas.

    I really hope this works not just in terms of being made available but rather that it would elevate the purpose of education in society into one that prepares kids to be full participants and contributors.


    1. Malyn, your concern about standardized testing is a valid one. My goal isn’t to help kids do better on tests, but to help them learn. Elevating the purpose of education in society is part of the mission!

  21. Wow, I love your ideas, and I like even more that you will try them out at your own school. It would be great to have a pool of lessons and resources to choose from. For me personally I think it would be really fun to share the lessons I come up with and see what other teachers think or if they use it later for their students. The possible problem that comes to mind for me is that I often find that documenting, sharing, and making my ideas presentable for another teacher to use or for an online student to view takes as long if not longer than coming up with the lesson in the first place. And once my student or students have learned the lesson, I find it difficult to set aside the time needed to present or share my results. Hopefully your system will give the teachers enough reinforcement to help them make that last step a priority.

    1. Shaun, yes the goal is to give teachers the freedom to create and share lessons while encouraging them to share. We will do as much from our end to encourage that, the rest will be up to the teacher 🙂

  22. Please keep us posted on this project. I’d love ti know more and contribute if possible!

  23. Hello. Very interesting post. You wrote: “We have managed to customize absolutely everything in our worlds except for education.” Actually, there is a customized education community out there, and they’re called “homeschoolers.” (Or unschoolers, or home educators, or whatever other term you want to use). As a home educator of four, I use a combination of free, open education resources, along with curriculum that I pay for. And, I try to find things that work for each of my children individually, according to their learning styles. We change and adapt accordingly. So, as home educators, we already do much of what you’ve written about: searching for lesson plans, unit studies, videos, interactives, etc. A system that would help search the web for us, and suggest resources based on learning styles would definitely be helpful.

  24. Hello. Very interesting post. You wrote: “We have managed to customize absolutely everything in our worlds except for education.” Actually, a community does exist that strives to provide customized education to learners, and we are most commonly called “homeschoolers,” (although, some of us call ourselves home educators, unschoolers, etc.). As a home educator of four, I use a combination of free, open education resources and curriculum that I pay for in order to find the best resources to match each one of my children’s individual learning styles. We change things if necessary, and adapt accordingly. A system to help with that process would definitely be useful.

  25. Listened to your RSCON3 keynote, read through the school’s website and spent a few hours on your blog… Your right, homeschoolers are going to go nuts for this! Reggio Emilia, PYP, Charlotte Mason… Its as if everything i have been reading for the past 5 years is coming together. I think this could be exactly what we have been looking for. The collaborative nature of the electronic portfolios and wikis, which I assume would bring together students and mentors of similar interests, would be just fantastic! Colorado might be a little far to travel to school (from Sydney, Australia) so to be able to apply similar education principles at home would be perfect. You mentioned during your keynote that you want mentors to sign up – where can we do this? Also, I’m not sure how but I would love to help in some way. I have a BA in English and history, and a graduate diploma in k-6 education (no teaching experience though as I’m at home with the kids full time at present). God bless you for all your work and bravery taking on such an ambitious project.

  26. This is a fascinating idea. Where can we learn more about the progress of the project and how can teachers contribute?

  27. I really like that you are developing it as a genome – very creative and realistic. I hope it works and that it all comes to fruition. I think it is possible and I hope you get all the support you need!

  28. Pingback: iPad Curriculum

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