EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D., CEO of Wolf Ed. Dr. Wolf describes how technology is allowing educators to personalize instruction in ways never before possible. She also explains how systemic changes are needed to fully realize tech-enabled differentiation.
When I was teaching many years ago, one of my students, Riley, came to fifth grade unable to read. Despite several years of special services, the ability to sound out words and make sense of text continued to elude him. After noting his abilities to retain and learn information that he heard in class on complex science or social studies topics, I began to think about other ways to approach his reading struggles, since the more traditional approaches that worked for other students did not work for him.
Because he seemed able to memorize or retain information, I asked Riley to consider tackling several words each day and practice them 10 times each night, including a review of the previous words. We began adding 10 high-frequency words (starting with kindergarten and first-grade level) to his word ring every day. He practiced relentlessly. By the end of the year, Riley had nearly 1,000 words. I was thrilled when a student with whom he was working declared, “Mrs. Wolf, Riley won’t let me read.” He was able to put together his arsenal of words and begin to decipher other words with those parts. This approach at this age provided him with the tools he needed to read.
Teachers across the country make efforts like this every day to try and meet the individual needs of their students. While my experience with Riley has clearly stuck with me through all of these years, I was well aware while I was teaching that I could not give each of my 27 students the same personalized experience. I certainly grouped students and tried to differentiate instruction; but realistically, I was only able to truly personalize learning for a few students every day.
A recent opportunity to delve into the possibilities around personalized learning has provided me with a critical lens as I move forward in my studies and research around educational technology and digital learning. Since focusing on technology and digital learning for the past several years, I have often revisited my days in the classroom and imagined what I could have done with access to the tools, resources, and data that are now possible.
It is possible to personalize learning without the use of technology for some children. However, I continue to believe that without taking advantage of the depth and breadth of curriculum, assessment, and instructional tools to connect students with what they need, it is virtually impossible to truly personalize learning for each child in a typical class without technology.
Innovate to Educate: System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning
In August of 2010, the Software Information and Industry Association (SIIA), in collaboration with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and ASCD, brought together a group of 150 education stakeholders to discuss and challenge each other to think more deeply about personalized learning. While many efforts through the years have addressed the components of personalized learning, the focus of this discussion and article goes beyond differentiated instruction and personalized learning and utilizes the definition from the U.S. Department of Education National Educational Technology Plan (2010):
“Personalization refers to instruction that is paced to learning needs [i.e. individualized], tailored to learning preferences [i.e. differentiated], and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary.”
--U.S. Department of Education, 2010, p. 12
The resulting ideas and more formal paper, Innovate to Educate: System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning (2010), have added to the existing thinking around personalized learning by focusing on specific examples, essential elements, and policy and system enablers.
Several districts and schools allowed us to look closely at their work to provide models and examples of personalized learning in action. For example, a Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) district in Colorado demonstrated how a completely new view of competency-based learning and elimination of traditional grade bands are paving the way for more personalized learning to meet the needs of high-need students in this struggling district.
“In 2008, Adams 50 School District in Colorado dramatically changed the very nature of teaching and learning. Seventy-five percent of the district’s students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 40% are English Language Learners (ELL). Following the RISC model, Adams 50 replaced the current and common time-based system with a standards-based reform model that is competency-based and in which grade levels are no longer used.
Students work through 10 different learning levels at their own pace. Students of varying ages work together on a particular skill, despite the fact that they would have been in different grades in a traditional model. Struggling students have access to different types of activities and can work at their own pace. Students who quickly grasp the concept can advance to the next level whenever they prove ready. Adams 50 began with an elementary school pilot and has expanded to the middle and high schools, completely revolutionizing the structure, teaching, and learning in their schools” (2010, SIIA).
Although a different approach and with a high school focus, the Providence (RI) Metropolitan Career and Technical School initiated and implemented the Big Picture Model.
“The program primarily targets students who may not have succeeded in a traditional high school. The Big Picture Model requires students to plan their personalized educational program with their families and stretches the traditional school day by providing opportunities for internships two days per week. This program focuses on standards, and charges students to achieve five learning goals: ‘communications, empirical research, personal qualities, quantitative research and social reasoning’ (p. 33, 2007, Time, Learning, and Afterschool Task Force).
The use of technology and community resources provide many additional opportunities to engage students and personalize the learning experience beyond the school day into what may typically be considered informal learning time. The Big Picture Model has expanded to over 60 schools across the country, and a majority of students--many who had been identified as at-risk --are entering college immediately upon graduation.
The Big Picture Model emphasizes that learning does not and should not begin and end with the traditional school day, and that students will be better served in a comprehensive system that takes advantage of before and after school programs, home, and community” (2010, SIIA).
These two examples illustrate the potential of rethinking the education process with a focus on the individual student. The Innovate to Educate: System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning (2010) report provides these and other examples and highlights the key approaches to personalized learning.
Although the essential characteristics and factors for personalized learning are extensive, the education leaders that participated in the Personalized Learning Symposium thoughtfully narrowed the list to five essential elements based upon their own experiences and the models shared, including:
While some overlap exists between the elements, each definitely provides a shift in teaching and learning; and technology can be used to accelerate and expand the change and implementation. Some are readily incorporated into existing structures (i.e. project-based learning), while others require a relatively significant move away from the status quo.
For example, competency-based progressions force a discussion about grade bands, social promotion, and allowing a student to progress outside of the typical semester or year course. Additionally, teachers who have grown accustomed to and even been encouraged to be the keeper of knowledge discuss letting go of some of the control over the learning experience and allowing students to create knowledge and learn at their own pace and style. The combination of these elements, when implemented effectively, represents a true transformation of teaching and learning the student experience.
Policy and System Enablers
Discussions with education leaders who have implemented programs that personalize learning shed light on what makes such efforts successful and, similarly, what can get in the way of progress. Interestingly, it was difficult to separate policy and system factors as they are intertwined in many cases. A certain policy may completely change the ability of a district or school to pursue certain facets of personalized learning, and some program elements quickly point to changes needed in the policy realm. The policy and system enablers that are pervasive in the models and programs studied include:
To implement and shift toward personalized learning and the essential elements described above requires a careful rethinking of the policies and system components. Although each of the above pieces is critical to a true move towards personalized learning, education leaders and stakeholders express the particular importance of redefining the use of time and eliminating the constraints put forth by the Carnegie unit. In many states and districts, this Carnegie unit limits a student’s ability to take advantage of online or blended learning in which seat time cannot be easily tracked or measured. The competency-based progressions included in the essential elements are almost impossible with the current Carnegie unit structure.
The importance of the underlying infrastructure to fully maximize the potential of technology cannot be overstated as a system enabler. Without adequate Broadband, devices, software, data and assessment systems, content, and curriculum, districts and schools are not able to truly personalize learning with the essential elements deemed important by education leaders. The Innovate to Educate: System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning (2010) report provides in-depth discussions around each of the policy and system enablers.
Sign of the Times
The exciting news is that in the year since the Innovate to Educate paper was published, the lens and specific examples of personalized learning are only increasing. Many are recognizing that the timing is perfect. The need for students to graduate and be prepared for college and career are essential for the U.S. and for students to be globally competitive. Simultaneously, the technology and digital learning available for education systems to utilize are completely shifting what is possible for more students.
I see many trends evolving or building momentum over the last year, including:
I continue to imagine what I could have done for students in my classroom many years ago with the current technology and innovations. I could have had a better understanding of my students needs with more comprehensive and on-going assessments; had better access to real time data; had more ability to directly tie their needs, interests, and learning styles to specific activities and curriculum; and possessed more of an ability to empower students for their own learning in a way that was not possible with flat resources.
When you find yourself trying to convince others of why technology is important for our education system and students and how the effective use of technology is more than just a “fun” way to engage students, consider the lens of personalized learning. I do not know a parent, teacher, administrator, or policy-maker who does not understand the value of meeting a child at their academic level and helping that child to learn and improve achievement outcomes.
In the end, personalized learning is good teaching--technology and digital learning allow a teacher to personalize the learning experience for more students at any given time. It is exciting to imagine how this approach will change student outcomes, as well as encourage students to stay in school when it is relevant and meaningful to them as individuals.
Software & Information Industry Association. (2010, November). Innovate to Educate: System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning; a Report from the 2010 Symposium. In collaboration with ASCD and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Washington, DC. Author: Mary Ann Wolf.
Time, Learning, and Afterschool Task Force (2007, January). A New Day for Learning. C.S. Mott Foundation. http://www.edutopia.org/pdfs/ANewDayforLearning.pdf
U.S. Department of Education (2010). Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology. http://www.ed.gov/technology/netp-2010
Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. is the CEO of Wolf Ed and has 15 years of experience in education and education technology. She currently serves as an independent advisor and consultant to several education organizations, including ASCD, the Alliance for Excellent Education, the U.S. Department of Education, and EDC; focuses on connecting policy and practice for innovative education reform and instructional practices; and grounds her perspective in her teaching experience and work with students. She recently conducted extensive research on mobile technologies with CoSN and UNESCO and wrote Innovate to Educate: Education System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning based upon a Symposium held by SIIA, ASCD, and CCSSO.
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