Special Report
Classroom Technology

Navigating the Path to Personalized Education

By Kevin Bushweller — March 14, 2011 12 min read
Edmunds Middle School teacher Jim Monahan uses an interactive whiteboard to help a student solve a math problem while other students work at their own pace on other assignments.
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In a classroom on the third floor of a 110-year-old faded beige-brick building, 20 middle schoolers of varying sizes and attitudes flip open their black HP laptops for an interactive lesson on the Declaration of Independence.

The students at Edmunds Middle School are crafting and revising poems about how they would have felt the day after the declaration was signed, but with a personal twist: Each student has taken on the persona of a patriot, loyalist, or moderate. Teacher Brent Truchon, a lanyard dangling around his neck with the attached keys and school ID badge tucked in the pocket of his red button-down shirt, moves constantly around the room, kneeling next to students and their laptops to give one-on-one attention where needed, before stepping to the front of the class to rally them all to put more imagery into their poems.

Then Truchon moves to a SMART Board, where he uses his finger to scroll and clicks on links to show students how to use a Web 2.0 writing tool to post their poems online for others to read. He explains how the students should read and react to classmates’ poems, and how they, in turn, should react to critiques of their own poems. “You can agree or disagree,” he says, urging them to think before they write.

Students are at varying levels of progress in the lesson near the end of class when several begin having trouble connecting to the network. Truchon instructs them to save their work to their laptop hard drives and says they’ll begin the next day where they left off.

Edmunds Middle School, perched on a hill with a view of the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York and of Lake Champlain, where some Revolutionary War naval battles were fought, is one of the most diverse schools in Vermont. Forty-one percent of its 384 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 20 percent speak English as a second language. It is a study in contrasts, serving immigrant children from Africa who have no computer access at home and children from wealthy families with virtually unlimited access, as well as many others in between.

In March 2010, the Vermont Department of Education identified Edmunds as a school in need of improvement based on student performance on state tests.

A group of five teachers and their students, called the Navigator team, is engaged in a pilot project, started in the 2009-10 school year, to use technology to personalize learning and raise student engagement and achievement. It requires a more customized way of thinking about education: Student interests drive many classroom projects, which are often connected to the community, and, in a particularly novel approach, students lead the discussions during parent-teacher conferences. The initiative is a partnership between the school and the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, which is run out of the college of education and social services at the University of Vermont. Two other middle schools in the state are also part of the Learning and Engaging Adolescents Project, called I-LEAP, and organizers plan to add more down the road.

Initially, Rich Tarrant, a former chief executive officer of a high-tech company in the state and the president of a philanthropy called the Tarrant Foundation, which has provided a $5 million grant over 10 years for the institute, saw it as a way to re-engage underachieving students, especially boys.

Now the institute—which has given Edmunds a four-year, $250,000 grant—aims to provide technology-rich, personalized learning to a wider range of students, research the impact of the approach, and use those results to make teaching and learning adjustments. The six tenets of the approach—all linked to the developmental needs of young adolescents—are that learning be technology-rich, personalized, relevant, authentic, diverse, and active.

But here’s the rub, the ed-tech innovator’s dilemma: How can you move forward when there is little, if any, evidence of the impact of technology-rich, personalized learning?

“I think the answer to that question is trial and error,” Tarrant says, citing a common approach among successful technology companies. “And it’s really important that teachers understand the kids. Why is Joey different than Susie?”

Pacing Themselves

Advocates of creating 1-to-1 computing environments that allow students to use the latest digital tools to work at their own pace, collaborate with peers, and pursue classroom projects that are based largely on their own interests say the heart and soul of this approach is motivation to learn fueled by student interests. But the backbone is still solid academic-skill development. Without that, educators say, learning descends into nothing more than superficial fun and games.

Hussein Hussein, an 8th grader who moved to the United States from Kenya in 2004, is sitting at a table moving very deliberately back and forth from peering into a microscope to typing information into his laptop on a Friday morning in February, just a day after a major snowstorm had hit Vermont. He is sharing the microscope with his lab partner, Nyahm Ali-Levin, a 7th grader. They are both going through a bit of trial and error in determining how to use a wet-mount microscope slide, a scientific skill they will be tested on the following week.

Hussein leans toward the laptop wearing his navy-blue No. 50 athletic jersey and puts his fingers on the keyboard. “I bring the laptop home on the weekends to catch up on work at school,” he says. “If I’m missing any assignments, I can get on the computer and finish them. It helps a lot. When I couldn’t take it home, I would be behind, and it would be really hard to catch up.”

Personalized Learning in Action

Students in the I-LEAP initiative at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington, Vt., are given laptops they can use in class and at home to do school assignments and projects tailored to their interests.

He sometimes takes the computer home during the week, too. And he says he always guards it from his three brothers and three sisters. “Sometimes they say they want to use it, too. But I don’t really let them use it,” he says. “I don’t think they know how to take care of it.”

Hussein’s situation is not uncommon at Edmunds. Many students do not have computers at home, and even those who do often have to share time on the machines with siblings and parents.

Science teacher Jim Kelley illustrates why access to the school-issued laptops—in class and at home—is a key component of technology-rich, personalized learning. While students like Hussein were reviewing, Kelley moved to the classroom SMART Board to show a visitor how the students had used an online microscope, created by the University of Delaware, to learn the proper techniques and nuances of operating a microscope. He clicked on the virtual microscope to show how it could be rotated and focused—and the virtual scope has a checklist to alert students if they are using it incorrectly.

The students worked on their laptops manipulating the online microscope in class and on their own before using the physical microscopes. As a result, when the students conducted a lab examining the difference between plant and animal cells, they were able to concentrate more on the scientific skills they were working on developing and less on figuring out how to use the device, Kelley says.

“This is an area where having the laptops is really great … because, developmentally, middle schoolers are all over the place,” says Kelley, who spent much of the Friday class kneeling or sitting with students individually to help them review for the upcoming test. “They can work at their own pace.”

Later that day, in Jim Monahan’s math class, students are gathered in groups of four or five around the four SMART Boards on the classroom’s four walls, working together to determine the surface area of a rectangular prism. The math software program they are using allows the groups to click on the prism and watch the colored images folding and unfolding in three dimensions, helping the students determine the number of faces, vertices, and edges.

There is quite a bit of trial and error going on, mistakes being made and corrections following, as Monahan moves from group to group giving tips (but not answers) for how to solve the problems, and looking for students who might not be contributing to their groups or simply do not understand the concepts.

Monahan is moving cautiously in embracing the use of technology to personalize learning. His lessons do not use the laptops as much as lessons in other subjects. And he still questions whether technology-rich, personalized teaching lessons are more effective than traditional approaches. For the state assessments, he points out, his students are tested the same way as students being taught very differently and more conventionally in other schools around the state. That’s why he remains a bit skeptical about using the laptops extensively in math lessons. He wants to continue moving forward in his use of technology because it does seem to have a positive impact on student engagement, but he doesn’t want to head in that direction at the expense of his students’ grasping math concepts.

“I wrestle with that,” he says.

Even regarding the SMART Boards, which he uses quite a bit, Monahan says “show me a teacher who can show me [the boards] have a direct effect on student achievement, and I’ll fly there.”

Building in Rigor

In Kathy Gallagher’s language arts class, students are just starting a research project on an American icon of their choice. The projects are part of the student-driven learning that is a hallmark of the I-LEAP initiative. Students work with teachers to frame “essential questions” about what they need and want to learn. And the teachers try to guide them.

Even advocates for technology-rich, personalized learning concede that it is an approach that, when done poorly, can be a recipe for academic fluff. They point back to the personalized-learning approaches popular in the 1970s that ultimately failed because they lacked academic rigor.

All the classrooms in the Navigator program at Edmunds are equipped with interactive whiteboards that are used to access the Internet, show video, and use virtual-learning tools.

“You have to build the rigor in,” says Penny Bishop, the director of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education and a professor in the college of education and social services at the University of Vermont. “That’s how you avoid the fluff. That’s what makes personalized learning work.”

On this day, school library media specialist Carole Renca is visiting Gallagher’s class to give a lesson in how to conduct high-quality research—in essence, setting up the backbone of 21st-century research skills necessary to do a project tailored to the students’ interests.

As the students sit in groups around the room, Renca stands at the SMART Board clicking on links to sources, such as the Library of Congress, that will take these students way beyond the walls of Edmunds Middle School. Behind her are three windows with a view to the west of the snow-capped Adirondacks.

“Once you get out in the Google world, you will be in the Wild, Wild West of information,” Renca tells the students. “Is the source credible or not?”

She reviews how to determine the credibility of an online source, and Gallagher pipes in with a story about a boy at a different school who got in some hot water when he cited information from a disreputable site suggesting that the Holocaust never happened. Gallagher tells the students they need to pay close attention to who is providing the information, and she and Renca provide warning signs for potentially disreputable sites.

The librarian and the teacher also go over the many multimedia sources available for research, such as the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, which has an audio feature that reads pages aloud, a learning tool Renca says some students might prefer to use; and the Discovery Channel, which has thousands of videos that the students have approval to download into video-editing software and use to meet the multimedia requirements of their final presentations.

In essence, the American-icon project aims to help students learn important academic and technical skills and fuel student engagement by having students pursue their individual interests. Gallagher sees a significant improvement in student engagement as a result of the technology-rich, personalized approach to learning. Still, questions remain about its effectiveness.

“How do we know it’s working?” asks Gallagher. “It’s very hard to measure.”

The Role of Relevance

You might expect that the last class on a Friday in a middle school would be a recipe for disengagement. But on this day, the students in Brent Truchon’s social studies class are caught up in a lively discussion about the February protests in Egypt and the violence then occurring. Their school-issued laptops are open, but for this moment in time, they are simply talking.

Truchon plays an ABC News video on his SMART Board about the escalating threats and attacks against journalists in Egypt covering the protests. He asks the students why the government might be behind some of the attacks. “Because Mubarak thinks it will make him look bad,’’ one girl suggests of the Egyptian leader’s view of the news coverage.

Then Truchon guides the students in a discussion back to the American Revolution, relating the unrest and opposition to freedom of the press in Egypt to what was going on between England and the colonists at the time.

“If you want to organize a rally, how do you do it now?” he asks.

“You tweet, you text,” says one boy.

“If you are the president of Egypt and you don’t want this to happen, what do you do?”

Several students mention that the government had Internet-service providers shut down access to the Web.

Truchon then instructs the students to log on to an educational resources site to pull up a multimedia document about Egypt. He tells them to think about the similarities of what is going on in Egypt that day and events occurring during the American Revolution, and jot down their observations.

It’s a lesson about relevance as much as history. What happens today is relevant to what has happened in the past. But it all has to be tied together, and Web 2.0 tools are being used to speed up and enhance that understanding. Truchon believes in the power of those tools. Yet, in the same breath, he emphasizes that the technology should never be the focal point.

“The bells and whistles will take you for two months, but after those two months you better have substance,” he says. “Otherwise, you lose the students.”


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