Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Mass Customized Learning: An Interview with Education Authors Charles Schwahn and Bea McGarvey

Charlotte Williams's picture

Clearly we live in an age when customers have great choice in products and services, many of which can be delivered via computer applications. Education authors and former teachers and administrators Chuck Schwahn and Bea McGarvey want to integrate this reality into school learning.

They recently published a new book, Inevitable: Mass Customizing Learning, in which they discuss how schools can alter current outdated practices by utilizing customizing technologies to better meet individualized needs of students. We recently asked the pair some questions about their book and its potential for improving the schools. Check out the description Bea provided of creating a learning plan/schedule under their system at the bottom of the page after the interview.

Public School Insights:  Your book is titled Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning.  What is Mass Customized Learning?

Schwahn/McGarvey: Mass Customized Learning (MCL) is actually a very descriptive label.  From a learner’s perspective, MCL means that “every day when I go to school, I am met at my individual and personal learning level, I am able to learn in my most powerful learning modes, I am motivated to want to learn with content that is of interest to me, I feel a sense of challenge, I am successful, and I look forward to returning to school tomorrow.” 

Sound impossible?  It was until today’s technology made mass customization routine.  Routine in nearly every business and industry but, until now, not applied to education.

The textbook definition of mass customization, a term that became popular in the leadership and change literature about ten years ago, might be defined as: The capacity to routinely customize products and services through computer applications and technologies to meet the specific needs and/or desires of individuals without adding significantly to the cost of the product or service.  Our everyday examples of mass customization include:

  • iTunes’ transformation of the music industry,
  • Amazon’s transformation of the “book store,”
  • eBay’s transformation of the garage sale–
  • the list could go on to include Facebook, Starbucks, Google . . . . . 

MCL is a learning community with clear expectations for students, a learning community in which exit Life-Role Learner Outcomes and enabling Learner Outcomes have been identified.  MCL is also defined somewhat by what it is not.  It is not a cyber school where all learning is online.  Once the learner outcome has been determined, MCL asks the student-centered, professional question, “How is this learner outcome best learned?”  Educators that we have surveyed believe that a majority of learner outcomes are best learned online, but many very important outcomes require interaction, and so MCL provides in-depth seminar-type learning opportunities; some outcomes require hands-on opportunities so MCL offers labs; some outcomes are best learned through individual or group projects, others might be best learned by shadowing a professional community member. MCL provides for all of these. Sounds complicated for sure, but Inevitable describes a clear and doable scheduling process to make it all happen . . . while leaving the school principal in control of the system. 

Public School Insights:  What personal experiences have you had in education that influenced the way you developed this system? 

Schwahn/McGarvey: Your humble authors had very different early educational experiences.  One (Chuck) attended a small school on a South Dakota Lakota Reservation and just went through the motions to graduate in the top ten of his class, which had eleven graduates.  The other (Bea) attended a Catholic School where she shined.  Neither of us paid much attention to the structure or the practices of school.  We took the Industrial Age assembly line as a given that always was and always will be, and now in 2011 it is still there.

Things changed when we became teachers and found that no matter how good we were, some kids got it and others didn’t.  And as the years progressed, the “didn’t get it” kids fell further and further behind.

A big breakthrough occurred in our professional lives nearly fifty years ago when Dr. Madeline Hunter and other educational gurus of the day began talking about the need to “individualize instruction.”  Now that’s hard to do when you have 25 learners in your class, all with different learning needs, but we all knew it was the right thing to do. 

So, about five years ago, when we realized that in the broader marketplace the customer/client had become king, and that we were being served mass customized products and services as common practice, we started to ask ourselves, “How do they do that?”  When we learned how iTunes was delivering music, how Amazon was profiling us as buyers, how Google knew what we wanted after clicking only ten letters, we asked the second question, “What might happen if we applied the mass customizing technology to education?”  The breakthrough happened, the vision occurred; it was hiding in plain sight–mass customized learning was desirable and doable. 

Individualized instruction, what Madeline had preached about and dreamed of, was ours for the taking.  We call this sequence of problem-solving questions “cross-industry learning.”  To not apply mass customizing technologies to education would be immoral; it would be malpractice.  We no longer have excuses. 

Public School Insights:  In what ways can this system improve teaching and learning?  How do teachers and students benefit?  How will their daily lives change?

Schwahn/McGarvey: The epilogue of Inevitable contains listings of WIIFYs (What’s In It For You) for learners, teachers, leaders, parents, the community, the economy, etc.  The power and benefits of MCL become clear when one reads the entire list. Let us give you a few WIIFYs for learners and teachers, as they are our main players. 

First WIIFYs for Learners:

  • Having your personal learning needs met every hour of every day.
  • The opportunity to learn at your optimum rate of speed—to advance as far as time and motivation allow.
  • The elimination of fear of failure and boredom when you are able to determine what and how you learn.
  • Learning opportunities in a number of formats from learning based on lectures and listening to interaction, involvement, and relevance.
  • Technology-based learning that closely matches the natural learning                          activities available in gaming activities and social networks.

And WIIFYs for Teachers:

  • The opportunity to coach and mentor individual learners over a period of time.
  • Teaching a skill, concept or process for which all learners have the                              prerequisite knowledge.
  • An organizational structure that allows you to apply powerful intrinsic learner motivators leaving you with fewer discipline problems.
  • Altering the ratio of work spent on management to focusing on professional activities.
  • Teaming with the NetGeners to continually master the new technologies.

In short, the big advantage for learners is that all intrinsic motivators are applied.  Motivation moves away from extrinsic rewards that foster compliance, to intrinsic motivators that foster commitment.  The big advantage for teachers is that they are allowed to become true professionals, coaching and teaching learners to become self-directed, life-long learners.  Education should be a meaningful career.  MCL allows for the creation of relationships that gives our careers the meaning they should have.

Public School Insights: How do you see this system as being more engaging for students?

Schwahn/McGarvey: We may be a bit redundant here, but we believe that our most basic research regarding student engagement is so obvious.  Learners are engaged when they are met at their individual learning level, when they are allowed to learn expected concepts or skills through one of their favored learning modes, and when they are allowed to learn expected concepts or skills using content that is of interest to them.  When I was a youngster, I learned more about racism from reading about Jackie Robinson’s struggles when becoming the first black in professional baseball than I did by studying Civil War battles while attempting to memorize names of officers and dates and locations of battles. You see, as an example, the Learner Outcomes of the MCL Learning Community have identified "racism" and "oppression" as enduring knowledge for students to have.  Both of which can be learned with various content and in various contexts depending on learner interest.  That's what engages students.

Let us provide a stark comparison between MCL and today’s Industrial Age assembly line. 

First, the possibilities of the digital world and the MCL vision: 

  • Anyone can learn anything from anywhere
  • at any time from world-class experts
  • using the most transformational technologies and resources available
  • to enhance their personal interests and life fulfillment.

And now, the realities of today’s “reform-driven” schools:

  • Specific students of a specific age
  • must learn specific things
  • on a specific schedule
  • in a specific classroom
  • from a specific teacher using specific materials and methods
  • so that they can pass specific tests on specific dates—
  • and only then will the system call them “OK.”

We can now move from mass producing education to mass customizing learning.  The mass customizing technology is out there - in other industries. 

Public School Insights:  Your book discusses using school and student calendars as part of MCL – how do you see this improving the educational experience?

Schwahn/McGarvey: Technology is not the driver of Mass Customized Learning.  Rather, MCL is driven by the needs of today’s learners.  Technology is the enabler, the extender, the empowerer of today’s professionals.  So, we would like to expand your question from “student calendars” to “customizing technology,” which includes student calendars.

Schools have been, and we believe will continue to be, organizations that require a structure, a set of controls, a way of moving learners through the K-12 system.  Today’s schools have Industrial Age structures and controls, and MCL provides Information Age structures and controls.  The true test of the MCL vision is to ask a high school principal if he/she could implement the MCL vision and still remain in control (control as a good thing) of their school.  To date, after gaining a thorough understanding of the MCL vision, 100% believe that the controls are there to make it doable, so MCL is both desirable and doable.

Allow us to provide a few examples of the technologies, technologies with which we are all familiar, that could easily be applied to the organizational needs of the MCL school: 

  • Google, Bing, and Wikipedia for content;
  • iTunes for assessing online learning;
  • netbooks or iPads for accessing the world’s information;
  • Verizon or AT&T for recordkeeping and reporting;
  • Microsoft Calendar for scheduling and coordination,
  • YouTube for electronic learner portfolios;
  • Amazon.com for profiling learning styles and interests;
  • Facebook for student and teacher networking;
  • Apple and Droid Apps for ALMOST ANYTHING!

Public School Insights:  What implications might this system have for students’ future – both students who go on to four-year post-secondary institutions, and those that enter the workforce for a trade (like a mechanic or plumber)?

Schwahn/McGarvey: Good question!  First, MCL meets all learners at their readiness level, so we sincerely believe that achievement for all will increase significantly.  And because everyone can go at their own speed, we also believe that we will be amazed when we allow our fast runners to run.  Expect many of our graduates to have completed several college courses before they graduate, and for many of them to graduate early and be ready for the university.  Second, going to post-education requires that learners be self-directed, life-long learners (LLLs).  Today’s system does little to prepare learners for that transition.  With MCL, becoming a LLL begins with day one.

Chapter 3 of Inevitable titled “But First Our Purpose” describes in detail our process for creating an organizational Strategic Design.  School systems should not have to choose between a mission of getting learners ready for life, or for getting learners ready for more school, but we believe that “ready for life” comes first.  Therefore, learner outcomes are derived from the mission statement of “Empowering All Learners to Be Successful in a Rapidly Changing World,” and those learner outcomes are then organized around life-roles.  So being ready for life is not left to chance.  Ready for life is indeed important and therefore very intentional.  (We learned from Stephen Covey that anything important should be intentional.)  So should one want to be a mechanic or a plumber, he/she will be ready for that technical school or for a starting job. 

This topic is a bit off the question, but we think that it is related and important.  If we are going to be learner focused, and if we are going to face reality, we must take a close look at the kids who are walking through our doors.  They are Digital Natives who think differently, act differently, and live differently than students in past decades:

  • They have learned to manipulate technology early and has never been afraid of it,
  • They are controlling markets and their cultural environment. The world is listening to them and giving them what they want,
  • They expect interaction; they no longer accepts one-way broadcasts
  • They not only consumes information but also create information, and in the future they will transform organizations, politics and inevitably education.
  • They are empowered outside of school through their digital know-how.

The Industrial Age gave us mass production—a good thing.  The Information Age gave us mass customization and made the “Age of Empowerment” inevitable. 

Public School Insights: Is there anything else you would like to comment on?

Schwahn/McGarvey: We would like to address what the MCL vision requires of leadership.

We also wrote a book on leadership for AASA, which turned out to be a best seller.  The book is titled Total Leaders: Applying the best future-focused change strategies to education.  Taking just a bit from that work, educational administrators must leave the role of management for the role of leadership.  They must be optimists; all good leaders today, down deep, are optimists.  (We thank Marcus Buckingham [http://www.tmbc.com/mb/biography ] for teaching us that.)  They must also have core values and principles that include courage and risk-taking.  And, of course, they must be visionaries.  We have given them a head start on that visioning thing. All they have to do is read Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning.

For more inforamtion on MCL, go here.


Mass Customized Learning In Action


Lori (a 14 year old in a MCL Learning Community), along with Mrs. Trezona (her assigned Learning Coach), creates her learning plan for the next two months—at times coordinating with her friends.

Mrs. T's tip is to schedule those events from the least flexible to the most flexible. Lori is on the gymnastics team for the LC. This is her least-flexible activity, so she schedules Gymnastics Practice first:  3:30 to 5:00 M-F.

Next, she schedules the following in-depth seminars designed around complex learner outcomes (standards necessary for graduation) which require interaction among the Learning Facilitator, Lori, and her classmates: Interpersonal Communications (30 hours), Diversity (24 hours), Creating and Defending a Business Plan (27 hours), Forms of Government (20 hours) (three friends are scheduling this one also!).

Much of Lori's science learning is online. Some of her experiments are even conducted via virtual reality.  However, there are some Science requirements which must be done in the science lab with the Learning Facilitator and other learners. Lori schedules her Science lab time for the next two months.

Lori then schedules online learning for specific Math Learner Outcomes.  She and 3 friends at the same learning level schedule 6-8 hours per week to work together on Math. Sometimes they do so in the computer lab, sometimes in one of their homes.  Anyplace where there is internet will do!

Lori has two burning interests:  music and how businesses work.  She has an eye to            working in the business side of the music industry.  One of the Learner Outcomes for Economics is about business plans.  Lori is allowed to do a personal project in place of the seminar for Creating and Defending a Business Plan as long as she can demonstrate the Learner Outcomes for that seminar.  Mrs. T. hooks Lori up to a mentor, a woman who works in a bank and used to be a professional entertain in the pop music field.  Lori schedules time to meet with her new mentor.

The last thing Lori schedules are other online Learner Outcomes she will learn on her own.  These have the most flexibility as she can do this learning from anyplace at anytime.  She and Mrs. T. identify those LOs that are most urgent to learn.

Lori hits "send" and everyone with a need to know gets a copy of Lori's Learning Plan/Schedule for the next two months. An electronic portfolio system will automatically document Lori's performance and mastery of her Learner Outcomes.