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Putting the student-centric approach in focus

By Tim Douglas
June 23, 2014
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VCRs and VHS tapes, film, CDs, movie rental stores, phone books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, fax machines and pay phones. They served a purpose and paved the way for advancement. But now they're mostly gone, succumbing to a wave of acronyms: DVRs, MP3s, WAVs, MOVs, AVIs and URLs.

Like devices and technology, systems, too, undergo significant change to meet different demands, deliver services and support in more effective ways and, in general, help create a better world.

Our education system is in the midst of a powerful transformation, thanks largely to a movement that is gaining steam and garnering champions from around the world.

"We are living in an interesting time. Personalized learning is the best opportunity and most efficient way to ensure students learn what they need to learn to be successful," says Randy Ward, San Diego County superintendent of schools. "We need to prepare students for jobs that aren't even created yet. So we need to transform what teaching and learning are all about."

Teaching, as established in the early 1900s, was designed to process large populations of students categorized by age. Teachers conducted lessons for these segmented groups. America has changed quite a bit in the last 100-plus years; indeed, the world has undergone an incredible transformation. Now, sparked by personalized learning, education is taking a huge leap forward.

Already popular with thousands of educators worldwide — including scores of ISTE members — personalized learning is viewed by many to be the future of education. At its foundation, and as explained in a recent blog on the Microsoft Educator Network, this approach to learning and teaching recognizes that each student has diverse needs and learns differently. Personalized learning also respects the central role of the student, while expanding teachers' roles to help them serve as mentors and guides to assist students on their own learning journey.

According to the National Educational Technology Plan developed by the U.S. Department of Education, personalized learning is defined as adjusting the pace, adjusting the approach and connecting to the learner's interests and experiences. It's designed to raise student engagement and achievement, and it requires a more customized way of thinking about education.

ISTE members Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, co-founders of Personalize Learning, a consulting firm that assists schools and districts in initiating and implementing personalized learning, say the philosophy seeks to transform teaching and learning to focus on learner-centered environments. "That means students drive their learning and are the ones responsible and accountable for their learning. Teachers' roles and the environment change when the focus is on the learner and learning first," Bray and McClaskey explain.

Other education stakeholders have definitions of their own. Some tech developers automatically think data analytics and programming trees. A handful focus on efficacy. Others see the root of personalized learning as data-driven formative assessments able to track student progress and serve up customized lessons.

But these are definitions. They don't capture the essence and magnitude of personalized learning and the role it will play in the education revolution.

A system for the times
Michael B. Horn, cofounder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank focused on innovation in education, says the education system, when first established, fit the times. The U.S. economy was based largely on industry, and schools were turning out workers for that world. But the industrial age is over. The world now operates in a knowledge-based economy that demands high-functioning and flexible employees. The early education system simply wasn't designed to prepare students for today, let alone tomorrow. Enter personalized learning, an approach that is helping educators think on a multi-dimensional level about the cognitive and social intelligences needed to navigate any world that comes next.

The future is here, and for David Ross, senior director of programs and services at the Buck Institute for Education based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the revolution can't happen fast enough.

"Look at what happens in the marketplace. If a business ignores the end user, then the business suffers," said Ross, whose organization, BIE, focuses almost exclusively on helping teachers use project-based learning, which is a significant part of personalized learning. "We have to give students voice and choice. That's really what personalized learning is about."

Abandoning one-size-fits-all
If Thomas Edison is right, that discontent is the first necessity of progress, then consider Lisa Dubernard, a leader in the personalized learning revolution.

"The one-size-fits-all approach to education doesn't work," says the director of education strategy at Its Learning, a Boston-based company and ISTE corporate member dedicated to helping American educators create and use innovative digital learning environments to improve retention and graduation rates and reduce instruction costs. "Personalized learning helps students see the meaning of things, and that makes a difference. That makes [learning] much more valuable."

"At the end of the day, it's setting up students for success in the way that most suits them," says Phillip Napier, co-director of the Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning (bavel) in Kentucky. Bavel is committed to giving parents and students more options in education. "Let's say there's a test to climb a tree. There are different ways to get to the top. Personalized learning helps build on strengths to get students college and career ready."

Personalized learning moves away from just teaching content. Students play a key role in deciding what they will learn, how they will learn it, and they then get a chance to show they understand it, which can take many different forms across many media.

"I think of adapting pace and pedagogy when I think personalized learning," says Cathy Cavanaugh, director of teaching and learning for Microsoft Worldwide Education and a veteran ISTE member. "How fast the student learns and the best methods of instruction and ways [a student learns]."

There are a multitude of techniques in personalizing and tailoring instruction, but for Dubernard, student and teacher need to be in lockstep from the very beginning.

"It boils down to assessment," Dubernard says. "I view learning like gps on a phone. Student and teacher need to know where they are, where they're going and how they're going to get there. Then, follow the little blue dot. Each student's journey is like MapQuest."

Wielding technology wisely
With the emphasis on pace, methods of understanding and freedom, personalized learning is very well served by technology, which helps deliver instruction and allows students to demonstrate competence through multiple forms of media. Technology also allows for immediate feedback on students' understanding and grasp of materials. Bottom line: technology gives students and teachers a wide variety of options.

But technology, like any dominant tool, needs to be wielded wisely. We have more computer power in our pockets and purses than we realize. Last year, Voyager I, the space probe launched in 1977 to study the outer solar system, became the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. It left the solar system using much less computer power than an iPhone.

Still, you use a shovel to dig a hole, but the shovel doesn't do the work. Super machines only deliver information. Technology users are charged with turning data into usable, useful knowledge.

"Technology enables students to have a wide choice to express their understanding of what they learn and how," says Dubernard. "[But] an iPad, ultimately, has nothing to do with personalized learning. It's how it's used."

Kecia Ray, executive director of learning and technologies for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and chair of the ISTE Board of Directors, says technology should be viewed as a way for teachers to augment instruction, with the technology doing some of the heavy lifting. "Technology amplifies our reach to teach," she describes. "That's my bumper sticker."

The increased adaptability and sophisticated algorithms that are part and parcel of modern technology are helping to facilitate individualized instruction. "Today, it's a whole different ball game, and in five to 10 years the technology that can impact personalized learning will be exponentially more sophisticated and affordable than it is today," Ray says.

Used incorrectly, technology can also be a detriment, and this is assuming it's even accessible. The very tools that seek to improve our students could make matters worse.

"Technology is a double-edged sword," adds Ward. "If we don't teach our teachers how to use technology, it can go wrong very quickly. And it's not just technology. We need the infrastructure to make sure that rural and inner-city students are connected. In fact, to get really serious about this, broadband should be treated like water and electricity. It should be standard."

Deviating from the norm
Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. When the late musician and song writer Frank Zappa said these words, he had no idea they would be applied to a discussion about personalized learning, but the quote is appropriate.

Why do we teach our kids? The easy answers are to help them get good jobs, be productive citizens, lead happy lives, etc. But personalized learning is more than that. It's aspirational.

Nathaniel Whittemore, a principal with Learn Capital, posits that an education system designed to maximize employability is different, ultimately, than a system designed to maximize capacity for critical thinking, and so on. How we choose to define the "why" shapes what we do and how we do it.

We simply can't view education as a system for the provisioning of facts and formulas, or even a system solely aimed at preparing kids for the careers of the future. It can do so much more.
"[Personalized learning is about] preparing students to be expert learners throughout life," Cavanaugh said.

But this philosophy needs to challenge the status quo. Districts nationwide are driven by test scores, standards, measurements and graduation rates because they need to be — this is the norm. Adopting personalized learning on a more widespread level will take commitment, conviction and dedication.

"Why do we put students in classrooms? To get seat time?" Dubernard asks rhetorically. "Why do we do that? Because that's how we had it done to us."

Bray and McClaskey concur, noting that maintaining the status quo, instead of turning teaching and learning upside down, is certainly easier and avoids the required culture shift. "What holds schools and districts back is the time it takes to make change happen. It takes a shared vision, commitment by all stakeholders, a supportive human infrastructure that is self-sustainable, and years to transform a system that is embedded in traditional teaching methods."

Making personal common-place
Personalized learning places a premium on pace and a demonstration of competency in myriad ways. Personalized learning also challenges us to rethink the physical school. If students are able to learn 24 hours a day, seven days a week in different ways, there will become little need for brick, mortar and blackboard.

These are significant challenges, and the solutions won't be easy. Recognizing the value and need of personalized learning is one thing, actually making it commonplace is something else.

"If I knew how, I'd be rich," Ross quips, "but I do think it starts with two things. Universities need to understand the environment and better prepare teachers, and I don't routinely see government as a problem solver, but in this case the federal government has the capacity to weigh in, offer significant funding and really help the nation focus on this. We need patience. It will take time."

"It starts with the school district at the top," Dubernard says. "Districts need to understand it and implement professional development trainings for teachers. Districts also need to provide clear examples and set clear expectations. Teachers need to see it. For students, we need them to show an acceptable level of mastery of material, but we need to all agree what that looks like."

"When is the student done [with school]?" asks Cavanaugh. "If a child has met the 'standards' of his or her personalized learning curriculum, can that student be done at [the age of] 13? Conversely, what if a child hasn't shown adequate competence by the age of 21? When is and what is complete? That's one of the big questions."

For Napier, it's a question of courage.

"It's a challenge to step out of the comfort zone and really focus on what each student needs, but that's when true learning and growth take place. We need to show leadership."

Ward has been in education for 50 years. He stresses pragmatism, and he understands the value of bringing all forces to bear in pursuit of one common goal: a quality education for all children.

"Personalized learning doesn't mean you throw everything else out," he said. "It needs to be a mixture of strategies and approaches. We can be great at matching whatever works with human beings and situations. There is no one path to Oz."

Ward makes a good point, and while we're still a long way from fully embracing personalized learning, it's time is coming.

In their new book, "Make Learning Personal: The What, Who, Wow, Where, and Why of Personalized Learning," publishing in November, Bray and McClaskey explain how to make personalized learning a reality by providing a process for teachers to individualize learning, along with stories from teachers who have changed teaching practice around the world.

Things change, the world adapts, and we always hope it's for the better, especially for our children.