Digital Tools Expand Options for Personalized Learning

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 29, 2010 8 min read
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Teachers have always known that a typical class of two dozen or more students can include vastly different skill levels and learning styles. But meeting those varied academic needs with a defined curriculum, time limitations, and traditional instructional tools can be daunting for even the most skilled instructor.

Some of the latest technology tools for the classroom, however, promise to ease the challenges of differentiating instruction more creatively and effectively, ed-tech experts say, even in an era of high-stakes federal and state testing mandates. New applications for defining and targeting students’ academic strengths and weaknesses can help teachers create a personal playlist of lessons, tools, and activities that deliver content in ways that align with individual needs and optimal learning methods.

For educators who struggle to integrate technology into their daily routines and strategies, the notion of a kind of individualized education plan for every student is more pipe dream than prospect. Yet the most optimistic promoters of digital learning say the vision of a tech-immersed classroom for today’s students—one that offers a flexible and dynamic working environment with a range of computer-based and face-to-face learning options customized for each student—is not far off.

Several examples of such customization have recently emerged across the country, and are garnering widespread interest and some encouraging results.

Teacher Jillian Ryan helps Abigale Klein with classwork on a laptop computer during a 6th grade English/language arts class at Pershing Middle School in San Diego. The district is emphasizing the use of digital tools to individualize learning.

“Those examples are a crude picture of a future scenario, where there’s a student playlist of learning experiences, some of which happen in something that looks like a classroom, some with a computer, and some at a community resource, like a library, museum, college, or workplace,” says Tom Vander Ark, a former executive director of education for the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who has advocated for years that schools should take a more individualized approach to learning. He is now a partner in Vander Ark/Ratcliff, an education venture-capital firm. “Their day could look like an interesting variety of activities, driven by their learning needs, not by the school’s limitations.”

‘Feedback to Children’

Vander Ark says that supplemental-service providers, like private tutoring companies or after-school programs, have taken the lead in offering tailored instruction. The ways those providers use assessment tools to gather and process data and then suggest a roster of activities for each student could pave the way for similar approaches within the school day, he says.

Creating a Custom Playlist for Learning

Technology experts recommend teachers utilize a variety of tools and activities to address individual student learning needs:

Class lessons:
Traditional lessons for the whole class help introduce a lesson or reteach material as needed.

Teachers conduct regular formative assessments, using some quick digital applications and analytic tools, to determine students’ skills and academic needs.

Skill-building games:
Computer-based games that focus on developing specific skills like vocabulary or multiplication facts.

Group projects:
Students collaborate on assignments using technology and traditional research and presentation tools.

Online courses:
Virtual learning could give students access to credit-recovery or accelerated courses, as well as enrichment and intervention activities.

One-on-one or small-group tutoring sessions, on-site or virtually, aid students who are struggling academically.

Museum Site Visit:
Students can tap into outside educational resources, such as museums, libraries, and local historical sites.

Students can write blog entries to demonstrate what they’ve learned, outline their research, and communicate with their teachers.

Independent Research:
Assignments outside of class using online and traditional resources give students the chance to guide their own learning.

He points to one widely publicized model: New York City’s School of One.

The pilot program at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School in Chinatown provided math lessons that were customized every day to meet the individual needs, and progress, of the 80 incoming 7th graders who volunteered to attend the five-week session this past summer. The School of One combined face-to-face instruction, software-based activities, and online lessons designed to move each new 7th grader through a defined set of math benchmarks at his or her own pace.

As students entered school each morning, they could view their schedules for the day on a computer monitor—similar to the arrival-and-departure monitors at airports—and proceed to the assigned locations. A student’s schedule could include traditional lessons from a certified teacher, small-group work, virtual learning, or specific computer-based activities, most of them offered in converted space in the school library.

After each half-day of instruction, teachers entered data on students’ progress and instructional needs into a computer program that recommended the next day’s tasks.

Preliminary data showed significant student progress toward mastering the skills targeted in the program, officials say. The district is continuing to track participants’ progress.

The school—named one of the 50 best inventions of 2009 by Time magazine—expanded in the fall to three middle schools in the city as an after-school program, and is set to guide the school-day math course at one of them this spring.

“When we ask ourselves how much instruction during the course of a typical school day does each student get exactly on the skill they’re working on, and in the amount that is right for them, the answer is very little,” says Joel Rose, a former teacher who has been instrumental in the development and expansion of the School of One.

“By leveraging technology to play a role in the delivery of instruction,” he says, “we can help to complement what live teachers do.”

The San Diego Unified School District is betting that the bulk of a recent $2 billion bond measure for technologies designed to transform teaching and learning through a more personalized approach will yield academic improvements.

The five-year plan for the 135,000-student district started this school year in 1,300 math classrooms. The students, in grades 3 and 6 and in high school, were issued netbook computers, and teachers were required to complete 39 hours of training on instructional strategies using technology. Classrooms throughout the district were also equipped with a variety of interactive technology tools.

After introducing content, teachers can immediately test students using remote devices attached to their netbooks. Students are then assigned to appropriate practice activities or more in-depth lessons.

“The wait time for getting feedback to children is sliced significantly. This is about the speed of learning and the depth of learning,” says Sarah Sullivan, the principal of San Diego’s Pershing Middle School. “This is the first time I’ve seen the promise of technology appearing to be paying the dividends we want.”

San Diego plans to expand the program next year to other grades and into other subject areas.

Making the Transition

Experts caution, however, that instituting such large-scale change is not simply a matter of putting new tools in place. As in San Diego, most teachers will need extensive professional development to use digital tools and learn the best ways of teaching with technology.

A 6th grader in a math class at Pershing Middle School in San Diego takes a laptop to her desk. The school district uses digital tools such as laptops to customize learning.

“In many ways, the challenge we face with technology is similar to the challenge we face with data,” says Stephanie Hirsch, the executive director of the Dallas-based National Staff Development Council. “We have more and more of both with little support to help educators know how to use it ... to advance their effectiveness and student success.”

A number of teachers have found their own ways to harness some of technology’s potential to get a closer gauge of their students’ work, and to provide a range of options for them to consume required content and demonstrate knowledge.

For several years, Shelly Blake-Plock has asked students in his Latin, English, and art history classes to summarize what they’ve learned from class and document their progress on assignments in daily blog entries. The students at The John Carroll School, a Roman Catholic secondary school in Bel Air, Md., can post Web links they used in their research, photos and drawings, or short videos that show their work.

Blake-Plock, who writes the popular Teach Paperless blog and has a large following among educators on social-networking sites, says the entries are a continuous source of formative data that he can use to evaluate how students are doing.

If he observes a lack of basic understanding or language skill in some students’ work, he says, he can suggest online resources and activities to get them on track. When students reveal their personal interests—such as one student’s passion for painting and another’s talent for music—he can craft assignments that allow them to explore the content through those areas.

“Before I went paperless and used the blogs to get information from them, I would only see students’ work if they wrote an essay or turned in a quiz or test,” Blake-Plock says. “Now I’m seeing what they’re working on all the time, ... and I’m finding it’s a lot easier for me to tell if a student is having problems early on.”

‘Lack of Innovation’

The advantages for students are potentially more compelling, given the widespread enthusiasm among young people for using technology to create and consume media, ed-tech experts say.

“We have this generation of students that yearns to customize everything they come into contact with,” says Steve Johnson, a technology facilitator at J.N. Fries Middle School in Concord, N.C. His book Engaging All Learners With 21st Century Tools is due out from Maupin House Publishing this coming summer.

The educational technology market is slowly responding with the kinds of products that can help teachers track and target their students’ learning needs.

Wireless Generation Inc., a New York City-based technology company, created its Burst Reading program in response to teachers’ comments about the need to vary basic literacy lessons for the many students who did not fit the developmental patterns assumed by lockstep reading lessons.

The company, which helped build the technology applications for the School of One, designed an assessment schedule for K-3 reading schedules that gives feedback and recommends lessons for small groups of similarly skilled students every 10 days. Although the Burst program suggests only face-to-face lessons for students, its underlying assessment relies on sophisticated digital tools for gathering and analyzing data from individual students.

“It’s this model of deeply analyzing the data in a way that no human teacher would have time to do, and mapping lessons to kids’ abilities, that’s fundamental to what education is going to look like in the future,” predicts Wireless Generation’s chief executive officer, Larry Berger. (Berger serves on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week Digital Directions.)

The company is working on similar products for middle school reading and elementary math.

At the same time, traditional textbook publishers are starting to adapt their products for greater personalization as well. McGraw-Hill Education, for example, has developed the K-6 CINCH math program for use on interactive whiteboards that includes differentiation options.

The slow pace of development of customizable content and tools is frustrating, though, to some in the field, particularly in light of the widespread adoption of such strategies for training in the U.S. military, or their entrance into the mainstream in public schooling in other developed countries, Vander Ark says.

“This is not science fiction,” he says. “None of the technology we’re talking about is really advanced, ... but the fact that it doesn’t exist yet on a large scale in education is just a reflection of a lack of innovation in that sector.”

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