Mass Customization in Education

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Mass Customization in Education

What is Mass Customization and how can it be applied to Education?

Mass customization in a general context, according to Investopedia, refers to the design, production, marketing and delivery of customized products and services on a mass basis. It means that customers can select, order, and receive a specially configured product--often choosing from hundreds of product options to meet their individual needs.   Build-to-order is a common synonym for mass customization. It makes for the affordability of more goods of very good quality on a wider range of economic levels according to the demand of the customer. Can education be treated in the same way? Can it be tailored to the demand of the individual learner thereby providing new opportunities for creating tailor made learning pathways that respond to the individual characteristics of a high number of students? Let us think carefully, What if we were to consider mass customization within the education system? I would like to proffer that it is about time we commence using mass customization as an approach for ensuring that we meet the needs of every single Jamaican child, who is deserving of the kind of quality education that will assist him or her to take his or her rightful place in society.


Trends and Issues in Education

Despite this changing competitive environment, many of our educators seem to lack the competitive and efficiency oriented thinking which guide business in the private sector, and hence, they continue to manage schools in the same way it was done fifty years ago. Furthermore, most product and service offerings within the education industry, are still created in the traditional way of delivering a classical British curriculum that must be completed at all cost before the end of the school year, but without providing any differentiation capabilities to meet the needs of the students and assisting them in maximizing their potential.

At the tertiary level, the deconstruction of the traditional approach on the education landscape goes hand in hand with a rapid commercialization of the field driven by demographic changes, technological innovations and the overall globalization of the economy. Unlike most sectors of our economy, the education industry today can be seen as an industry where growth is the norm (Van de Ven 2001b). Alongside its growing importance, however, customer expectations and technology opportunities are forcing suppliers to become demand-led, rather than product driven. At the tertiary level, steadily increasing international competition and the entry of a huge number of new competitors lead to a growing market pressure which is transforming  the education industry from  a sellers’ to buyers’ market. The cost-benefit relation alters, because our students demand increasingly high standards of quality, service, and fit. Even when the price is favorable or vice versa, suppliers have to meet additional requirements in pricing when a product is markedly differentiated.

The competitive situation that exists in the education industry is the result of dramatic changes within the last decade. Traditional players, for example our universities, find themselves in a competitive environment between emerging sub-sectors such as corporate or virtual universities, executive development firms and or management consultants. 

At the secondary level, students are somewhat getting bored with the generalized education approach and those who can afford to are now accessing high school education online, whether formal or informal. Others remain in school but are just not engaged, while others are dropping out of the school system to engage in more lucrative activities that they believe can get them the fancy car and lifestyles that we all craved for when growing up.

However, at the primary level, there is still great compliance with educational expectations and this is reflected in the marked difference between the attendance level at primary and secondary schools, as students tend to be more interested in being a part of the education process as they look to the system for the shaping of their lives.

The question that now must be asked as a nation is, How do we ensure that education is fit for purpose, and that a mass customization approach is used to right-size our education system?

Approaches to Individualized Learning

Many strategies can be considered but two will be highlighted in this article.  These are Differentiated Instruction and Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI).

Differentiated Instruction

Differentiation, according to Reading Rockets means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.

At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group, to vary his or her teaching, in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.

Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:


  • Content – what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information;
  • Process – activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content;
  • Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and
  • Learning environment – the way the classroom works and feels.

Differentiated instruction should also result in differentiated assessment which should allow the students to progress comfortably on a pathway that will get them to the ultimate level.

Another term used for differentiated instruction is the facilitation approach to learning where the teacher is expected to provide holistic support to the students as they progress. This is aptly used at the post-secondary and tertiary level as students become independent learners.

Research has also shown that Competency Based Education, which is sometimes misunderstood as only supporting TVET programmes, provide a practical approach and/or methodology that teachers can use to support the passing on of fundamental concepts to students and ensuring that they are grasping the concepts well.

Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI)

Using the Response to Intervention and Instruction square approach has also become very popular in mass customization of education. This is simply assessing the needs and designing the interventions as well as the methods for instructions to suit the needs of the students.

Towards a Mass-Customization Approach

As we move forward and having looked at two methods that could assist us to customize education and ensure that we change our approach from that of a traditional way of organizing schools and delivering instruction, here are four areas to consider:

Firstly, we need to ensure that the fundamental principles of education remain intact. At the early stages of development, children must be taught the fundamental principles of literacy and numeracy. Once these are developed, their ability to understand all other concepts in other subjects become so much easier. Effort must be made by all teachers and school leaders to ensure that the students are understanding and developing the basic principles based on their grade levels. Our students should not leave the primary level without us clearly identifying their needs and putting them on a path towards having those needs addressed. It cannot be about automatic promotion but about us making a conscious decision to provide the appropriate support as our students’ progress. It is for this reason that the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information has designed a Proficiency Pathway system at the primary level with the appropriate assessment done at different stages to allow for teachers to readily identify the needs, focus on addressing them, or seek support from experts when it is needed.

Our school leaders need to utilize the tools provided by the Ministry to adequately identify and treat the needs of our students. The Proficiency Pathway at grade One must be used locally by our teachers to support the students’ development and the Early Identification and Referral System must be used to channel students who need support with their parents in the right direction for the support to be provided. We cannot afford to continue to lose any of our children and mass customization education is one way that we can avoid this.

Secondly, we must ensure that broader principles in education are taught and understood at the lower secondary level that will allow our students to have a broad appreciation of varying principles and concepts that are necessary and applicable to a range of other subjects. For example, when a student learns about the solar system in Geography, it is also applicable in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics.

While we do this, however, it is crucial that we ensure that our students are on pathways where their needs are specifically identified and can be met. The Alternative Pathways to Secondary Level Education is that approach at the secondary level, which will allow for our students to get the customized treatment required. This approach has three pathways.

Pathway One - for those students who are at the level to access secondary education.

Pathway Two - for those students who require additional support due to delayed learning for a multiplicity of reasons.

Pathway Three - for those students who, from diagnosis, are found to have some form of special need that can be mild, moderate or severe.

These pathways then should be used by school leaders to organize the students in their schools so as to allow for getting the best out of them. This is not generalized education but mass customization in its truest sense… serving our children based on needs.

Thirdly school leaders must begin to track the needs of the labour market locally and internationally, understand the trends in terms of emerging professions and position their schools to offer subjects that will allow the young people to seamlessly transition to training programmes at tertiary, or into entry level jobs in industry. We now need to understand that we live in a world where changes are taking place rapidly. Twenty years ago we could speak of having a lifetime career, today careers are changing every year. The traditional careers of the lawyer and doctor are no longer as attractive. As a matter of fact it is now the careers in sectors such as the digital world, maritime and aviation support systems that are trending.

We must find a way to ensure that career information is being provided and used in the choices that our students are making. School leaders must organize and re-organize their subject offerings to allow for students to select those that will allow for them to advance in the right direction. Too many of our students are leaving the secondary level without determining the pathway that they want to follow as they advance their education.

Focus must be given to the demands of the learner.  I met a young man some time ago by the name of Jeremy. He went to Munro, started to pursue medicine at the University of the West Indies but along the way, he felt he was not challenged. He therefore changed his career pathway and went to Caribbean Maritime Institute (CMI) much to the dismay of his friends and family members. However, he continued along the path, completed his degree in Navigation systems and is now employed by Xmar; one of the largest cruise shipping companies. He is well paid, the company paid for his Masters degree that he is now completing at CMI. He now lives in Brazil and works for only six months per year.

Our leaders must now understand that they have to keep themselves abreast of the advancements in careers, as well as those emerging, and guide parents and students to make the right selection. We do not want to only celebrate the success of one Jeremy but many others who would have been influenced by the information with which we provided them and hence can do as well as any other young person across the world.

Fourthly as our students progress into post-secondary and tertiary, we must ensure that the programmes they are doing are relevant. It can no longer be about narrow areas of specialization but students have to be prepared in a range of areas where their skills and competences are transferrable. This allows for them to be able to remain current as they keep abreast with the rapid changes taking place in industry.

Finally, the system has to ensure that the programmes being offered at all levels are infused with the development of positive values and attitudes. This will ensure that our young people develop a sense of belonging, respect for law and order, an understanding of the Jamaican values and principles. The Civics programme developed by the Ministry of Education Youth and Information and re-introduced in 2012 that implemented in September 2016 will assist in this regard.

Provision of More Opportunities

We must also ensure that we provide opportunities for those students on Pathways Two and Three who need an opportunity to obtain additional support to advance themselves.  The additional two years at high school, recently announced, will allow for those students to get the additional support required through the Career Advancement Programme. Our system cannot continue to generalize education. We must ensure that the opportunities in the right areas are provided and this is what mass customization will allow for.

The existing models of delivering education are challenged by the growing skills and knowledge needs. In addition, new technologies provide new opportunities for serving the needs. These general shifts are demanding new competitive strategies for the production and delivery of education from all participants of the education value chain (Hämäläinen 1999).

The concept of mass customization may provide a solution to us overcoming the deficiencies of a system that is traditionally focused on generalizations.  It moves one's thinking beyond costly customization on the one hand and pure standardization of education on the other. Let us therefore change our thought process, do the research and as school leaders refocus our attention towards meeting the needs of all our students via mass customization of education but also as a country, as we seek to move this nation towards achieving it 2030 vision.



Mass Customization in Education Retrieved on October 4, 2017; Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/m/masscustomization.asp

Hämäläinen, M. (1999), Enabling electronic markets for education and training, white paper of the Espoo-Vantaa Institute of Technology, Espoo, Finland 1999, available online at http://www.enable.evitech.fi/enable99/ papers/hamalainen/hamalainen.html [Jan 14, 2002].

Van de Ven, A.H. (2001b), Plenary Speech at the Presidential Luncheon, Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, Washington D.C., Washington D.C., August 7, 2001.

Zipkin, P. (2001), The limits of mass customization, Sloan Management Review, 42 (Spring 2001), pp. 81-87.


Profile of Writer

Dr. Grace McLean joined the Ministry of Education in July 2009 as Deputy Chief Education Officer and was subsequently promoted to the post of Chief Education Officer.  She attended the Edwin Allen Comprehensive School in Clarendon. A trained teacher and Human Resource practitioner, Dr. McLean is no stranger to the education sector. She taught at the St. Jago High School for five (5) years where she served as Head of Department. Before joining the Central Ministry, Dr. McLean served at the HEART Trust/NTA (an agency of the Ministry of Education) for 14 years. She left HEART Trust/NTA as the Senior Programmes Director.

Dr. McLean holds a Masters of Business Administration Degree in Human Resource Management, from the University of the West Indies, a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education and a Diploma from the University of Technology. She recently successfully defended her Doctoral thesis in Technical Vocational Education and Training at the University of Technology.

Her other achievements include; past Chairman of the Board for the Norman Gardens Primary and Junior High School and Technical Delegate to Worldskills International for Jamaica 2004 to 2010. Her wealth of experience and technical skills include Strategic Planning, Log Frame Planning and Balance Scorecard Methodologies, Change Management, Business Process Improvement as well as Behavioural Interviewing Techniques.

Dr. McLean has served and continues to serve on several boards in various areas of the Country. She is regularly involved in public speaking, responds to various educational issues in the media and aims to continuously improve the educational system.

Dr. McLean is a member of the Barbican Baptist Church. She is married to Eron and has two children; son Orville and daughter Eronica.

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