Published Online: June 18, 2014

Includes correction(s): July 15, 2014

Before Buying Technology, Asking 'Why?'

—Ross Brenneman

District leaders and other advocates of personalized learning frequently say that the approach isn't about technology. But that’s easy for an administrator to say when every child in his or her district has a school-provided computer.

The record of spending certainly seems to suggest districts believe that one requires the other.

First, consider the nearly $400 million given out by the U.S. Department of Education for its Race to the Top district competitive-grant program in 2012, created to spur on personalized-learning initiatives in low-income areas. And then there’s the subsequent $120 million the department gave out in 2013 during the second round of that competition.

Out of the 21 total school districts to receive funds through those iterations of Race to the Top, almost all created 1-to-1 digital device plans. Even some of the districts without 1-to-1 ambitions in their applications, such as the Carson City, Nev., and Houston school districts, have nevertheless been working on getting laptops to their students.

Districts without such federal funding have also been entranced by 1-to-1 programs: In Arlington, Va., the district is piloting a 1-to-1 program among 2nd and 6th graders that will cost $200,000, before eventually expanding. The Madison, Wis., school system recently embarked on a $28 million 1-to-1 initiative that hints vaguely at personalized learning. Maine began implementing a statewide 1-to-1 initiative over a decade ago under former Gov. Angus King, although current Gov. Paul LePage almost shut it down over concerns about cost-effectiveness. That program has poured millions of dollars into Apple MacBooks for students.

Some districts may have comprehensive instructional plans to go along with their technology purchases, but it's not like Apple—or hundreds of other technology providers—will turn down money from more freewheeling school systems. Districts might believe that personalized learning follows directly from major technology purchases, but the reality tends to show otherwise.

"I get probably five or six calls a day from different principals or superintendents saying, 'I bought all this technology, now what?'" said Allison Powell, vice president for new learning models at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. "They're buying the technology without thinking through what their specific learning goals and outcomes are, and technology might not be the right tool for that."

Defining the Terms

If the initial question districts might ask is what learning goals should precede a classroom-technology implementation plan, another, far more basic question could precede that: What, exactly, is personalized learning?

According to experts, personalized learning is one of many similar and overlapping, but not identical, instructional philosophies that seek to better cater to students’ individual learning needs. Other approaches in the same pedagogical cluster include differentiated instruction, blended learning, competency-based learning, and the especially vague "student-centered learning." The only consistent underpinning of each is an assumption that students do not all learn the same way and that classroom instruction needs to be structurally modified to adapt to that fact. Proponents of these brands of instruction tend to grimace or smirk when they say things like "sage on the stage" and "one size fits all."

According to an October 2013 iNACOL report entitled “Mean What You Say,” written in a bid to build consensus around digital-learning terms, personalized learning is a system in which instruction bends to each student's pace and interests, but without altering the standards to which they are taught. Blended learning (which combines online and face-to-face instruction) and differentiated instruction can be means to that end, but blended learning can also be implemented without differentiation; students can show competency without personalization; and personalized learning can be achieved without blended learning.

And yes, that means that personalized learning can be implemented without technology.

The remote Chugach, Alaska, school district, for example, implemented a combination competency-based and personalized-learning program late in the '90s for which it won national recognition, including a Malcolm Baldridge Award. Rather than the usual 12 grades, in which students advance primarily by age, the district now operates on 10 competency levels based on student demonstrations of learning. The personalization component involves student portfolios that track their work, as well as triannual assessments designed to help teachers determine which students learn better visually, orally, or with other kinds of assistance. Students also assume increasing amounts of leadership over their learning as they progress, including designing their own learning projects.

As a much simpler example, Powell suggests that a teacher with a student interested in animals could help that pupil land a veterinary internship and base some of the in-class curriculum on animal-related texts.

“You can do [personalized learning] without the technology, but [technology] just makes it a whole lot easier for the teachers to do," Powell said.

Also more important than the technology per se, or even the style of learning, is the long-term planning.

If that plan includes a computer for every child, research (and anecdotal evidence) suggests a good 1-to-1 program will likely take 3-5 years to implement, Powell says. That includes time to craft the plan, get all relevant parties on board, and begin integrating instructional changes. Next comes counting the technology options, purchasing and stocking the devices, and training teachers, principals, and parents, before managing distribution to students.

New schools may need to be especially careful, or else risk the problems faced by several new charter schools profiled in a May 2014 report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Many of those schools, which planned to utilize personalized learning, underestimated costs associated with hiring staff, leaving them to spend less on hardware and software alike.

With or without technology, shifting a district’s teachers to a new form of instruction requires thorough professional development, drawn from a “coordinated, intentional, and systematic” plan, according to iNACOL’s October 2013 case study of the iLearnNYC Lab Schools, part of New York City’s Innovation Zone schools. Meeting the qualifications of such a plan requires schools to understand the needs of their teachers and administrators, and a district’s capacity to deliver.

No matter what plan a district goes with, school administrators and teachers need to know what they’re all in for.

"The vision needs to come first," Powell said.

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Correction: 
This article previously misstated the level of funding for the Race to the Top district program.

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