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Executive Skills & Strategy

Checking Up on Personalized Learning Pioneers

By Michelle R. Davis — October 18, 2016 6 min read
Joe Jaszewski for Education Week-File
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When Education Week first began writing about schools dipping their toes into what is now known as personalized learning, the price of a typical laptop was $1,200, providing online-course options to students in traditional schools was rare, and most schools banned the use of students’ digital devices on campus.

Those early stories, starting around 2008, highlighted what was then the cutting-edge of letting students use digital tools to take the lead in how and what they learned and gauge their progress based on mastery of material rather than how long they sat behind a desk. Using technology to allow students to take courses when it fit their schedules, to move ahead at their own pace, and to access lessons that better matched their learning styles was a far cry from the way most schools operated.

Personalized learning, like most big trends in education, has evolved at a gradual pace since Education Week began covering it. A look back at some of the stories we covered several years ago and what those schools and people are up to now provides a flavor of how much things have changed, and how much they have stayed the same.

Edmunds Middle School | Burlington, Vt.

“Navigating the Path to Personalized Education,” March 17, 2011

Technology Counts 2011: K-12 Seeks Custom Fit

Then: The school had a small personalized-learning project going in 2011. Financed with a four-year, $250,000 grant from the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, based at the University of Vermont, the Edmunds project involved a group of five teachers (called the Navigator team) and their 85 students practicing a technology-rich, personalized-learning model. The model allowed student interests to drive class projects and used technology to customize the educational process.

Rajan Chawla / Rajan Chawla Photography

Now: In 2012-13, the entire school went 1-to-1 with Chromebooks. Two years ago, with a grant from Digital Promise, a nonprofit ed-tech advocacy and research organization, the school decided to switch to iPads in an effort to push for more innovative use. “The goal (with the iPads) was to have it be much more transformative, and students are really able to show their learning in a different way,” said Principal Bonnie Johnson-Aten. The whole school is now focused on collaborative learning and proficiency-based learning, even moving closer toward proficiency-based grading rather than traditional report cards.

Still the same: The principal. Johnson-Aten has been at the helm of Edmunds for 11 years.

A big change statewide: In 2013, Vermont adopted what’s known as Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative, which requires schools to develop personalized-learning plans for all middle and high school students and emphasizes proficiency-based learning over seat-time requirements. The law is being phased in.

Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education:

Then: In 2011, the Tarrant Institute was working with one or two middle schools at a time on innovative educational practices. Most of its money and resources went to helping schools buy devices and set up 1-to-1 computing programs.

Now: Most of the middle schools Tarrant works with have already made that device transition. Tarrant now devotes much of its resources to bringing intensive, research-based professional development to educators with the goal of shifting them to a high-quality personalized-learning model, said John Downes, the associate director for the institute, which is currently working with about 25 schools across Vermont.

Benjamin Merrill | Notus, Idaho

“Schools Factor E-Courses Into the Daily Learning Mix,” April 28, 2010

Education Week Special Report: E-Learning 2010: Assessing the Agenda for Change

Then: In 2010, Benjamin Merrill was the superintendent, high school principal, and football coach in the Notus school district in rural Idaho. He was also a forward-looking force when it came to education technology and the ways it could help the 330 students in his district. All Notus high school students took at least one online course, bringing subjects they were interested in to their doorstep. The school couldn’t afford a Spanish teacher, for example, so students took the course online, during the school day in a computer lab, with an adult to provide in-person support.

Now: Merrill has returned to his hometown of Baker City, Ore. He began by serving as the principal of Baker School District 5J’s fully online school, Baker Web Academy. That school personalized the online educational experience by sending teachers on home visits every two weeks. Merrill currently serves as the district’s director of instructional technology and manages its Eagle Cap Innovative High School, which puts a heavy emphasis on personalized learning. A list of options allows Eagle Cap students to choose a mix of courses, from online-only courses to blended-learning classes, college-credit courses, credit-recovery classes, or traditional face-to-face environments.

Shifting perspective: “I place an emphasis on proficiency-based learning. But I used to think a kid could get online and go 24 hours a day online,” he said. “I now feel giving kids an opportunity to pick and choose between all of the possible classroom environments, that’s more important.”

Hector Emanuel 2008

Red Lion School District | Red Lion, Pa.

“Dollars & Sense,” Oct. 20, 2008

Education Week Digital Directions

Then: In 2008, a laptop was a big financial investment for schools and the Red Lion district couldn’t buy one for every student. There also weren’t many devices to choose from—the district was just starting to incorporate “mini-laptops” (what we now know as netbooks) into its offerings.

Now: A laptop now costs the district $172, said Timothy Smith, the 5,500-student district’s supervisor of instructional practice and technology integration. There are more devices, and refresh cycles are shorter. The growing menu of device options allows students to choose a device based on what is best for the task or their age level. In grades K-2, students use iPads, iPods, and laptops, for example. Students in grades 3-12 use a mix of PCs, Chromebooks, and other technologies. “When they get into the workforce, they’re probably not going to have the ability to choose their platform and device, so we want to give them the skills to adapt,” Smith said.

Still the same: Though the district has more digital learning devices, it’s still not a fully 1-to-1 computing environment.

Then: The district banned student cellphones and personal digital devices in school. There were concerns about overloading the district’s network, inappropriate activity, and worries about introducing viruses. But then-technology director Jared Mader believed Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD, options were on the horizon. “We may need to begin looking at these options as viable ways to better utilize district resources,” he wrote in an Education Week online chat in 2009.

Now: Since the district is not a fully 1-to-1 computing environment, students in grade 6 and higher are permitted to bring their own devices to school for educational use and can connect securely to the district network.

What else is new? The role of the information-technology director is now completely intertwined with that of the supervisor of curriculum and instruction. Those two district leaders make decisions together. In addition, the district has hired a technology coach to help teachers integrate technology effectively.

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2016 edition of Education Week as Checking Up on the Current Status Of Personalized Learning Pioneers


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