Special Report
School & District Management

Researchers Evaluate Tech.-Oriented, Personalized Learning

By Michelle R. Davis — March 14, 2011 4 min read

The Digital Learning Council, a group formed by a pair of former governors—Republican Jeb Bush of Florida and Democrat Bob Wise of West Virginia—released a report in December calling on schools to do a better job using digital tools to personalize learning. The nation’s largest educational technology conference, ISTE 2010 in Denver last June, was packed with sessions about how technology tools can be used to play to students’ strengths and weaknesses. Prominent virtual schools are riding the personalization bandwagon, too, touting the use of digital tools to customize education.

But the question most educators ask is: Does this tech-driven personalized approach work? That’s where things get a little murky.

For starters, “personalization” in education can involve so many different approaches that it’s hard to define in a universal way. And experts say there are very few large-scale models of excellence, backed by research, for educators to turn to for guidance. Beyond that, it is hard for researchers to isolate the impact of the digital tools when evaluating a personalized-learning approach that emphasizes the use of technology.

Still, researchers are examining a whole host of aspects of technology-oriented personalized-learning strategies, from intelligent assessments to pathways for course completion and personal learning environments. And supporters of using technology to personalize the educational experience for K-12 students argue that waiting for the research to catch up before trying new ideas could slow the development of more-effective models for using technology to customize learning for students.

“There’s not a lot of research telling us that cellphones are better than a handset, yet you wouldn’t want to turn back,” says Jayne W. James, the senior director of education leadership for the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, a Washington-based nonprofit group that aims to improve teaching and learning through technology.

Tracking Clues

Some studies, however, are providing clues about what works.

A recent report by Project RED, a national research and advocacy initiative, found that 46 percent of nearly 1,000 schools surveyed reported that teachers who had access to digital tools spent more time daily on individualized and small-group instruction rather than on teacher lectures. Project RED, which stands for revolutionizing education, is closely linked to the Mason, Mich.-based One-to-One Institute set up to investigate what works in technology-rich learning environments.

The report, “The Technology Factor: Nine Keys to Student Achievement and Cost-Effectiveness,” also found that more than half the schools said that their students were engaged in real-world, problem-solving learning activities using technology on a daily or weekly basis. About the same percentage of schools said that students were directing their own learning by identifying research topics and resources and giving presentations of their findings.

Richard E. Ferdig, a research professor at the Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio., says existing research suggests that if educators use technology to provide personalized learning experiences, the technology can help by expanding those teaching approaches on a much wider scale.

‘Hard to Measure’

Some research about personalization has to do with timelines and pathways for students to make their way through curricula, says Cathy Cavanaugh, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, who is currently a Fulbright scholar in Nepal.

“The timelines and time frames students have available, the flexibility, all of that will be an increasing component of personalization,” says Cavanaugh in a Skype video interview. “It shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re finding that students who have more flexibility” are doing better, she says.

That’s borne out by the Project RED data, which found that the use of technology-based interventions for English-language learners, struggling readers, and students in special education were the top predictors of improved high-stakes-test scores, dropout-rate reduction, and course completion. The study also found that a student-centered approach in which the pupil works at his or her own pace was critical.

Wendy K. Drexler, a postdoctoral associate in educational technology at the University of Florida, has been studying personalization by researching how students create their own “personal learning environments” online using networked learning skills, in which students use online networking and research to build knowledge.

Students follow and contribute to blogs, approach subject-matter experts online, collect data on a topic, and then organize it in a way that makes sense and allows others to build on it. Though Drexler says her research allowed her to see whether those students were meeting curricular standards through those high-tech methods, she acknowledges the difficulty in studying the success of those strategies.

“It’s hard to measure, especially if you’re trying to measure it the way you’d measure accountability on a large scale,” Drexler says.

But personalization often hinges on how a given educator implements the technology.

Ferdig’s research has shown that incorporating a face-to-face mentor into students’ use of online courses is directly linked to success. But there needs to be an increased focus on how the teacher uses the technology, Cavanaugh says.

“There’s been a lot less research on the role of the teacher,” she says. “We’ve been so focused on how [technology] works, that we haven’t gotten to some of the questions about specific teaching practices.”

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