Classroom Technology Opinion

What If Kids Co-Created Customized Learning Pathways?

By Tom Vander Ark — February 03, 2014 4 min read
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New tools are making it easier to customize learning for every student. Playlists, projects, and portfolios support big blocks, maker spaces, and flex
schools. One thing I appreciate about the Christensen Institute definition of blended learning is that it stresses student
agency by requiring “student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.” During an EdSession in Boise
tomorrow, I’ll be discussing 10 ways that students can co-create customized learning pathways.

1. Projects.
The most common personalization strategy is project-based learning. High Tech High is the best
example (see projects, practices, and publications). We recently posted a short primer on Performance Assessment (and next month will publish a full guide on tools for better

2. Makerspace.
The simple act of encouraging kids to make stuff can be transformative. In the last few years there has been an explosion of maker resources and
networks--and we’ve been covering it on GettingSmart.com. Here’s a small sample:

3. Adaptive learning.
Systems that combine adaptive assessment and targeted tutoring (e.g., i-Ready, Dreambox, Reasoning Mind, ALEKS) are
widely used to personalize pathways particularly in math.

Visual game-based ST Math helps students learn by doing and benefit from instructional feedback when they make

Some content providers (e.g., Compass Learning and Pearson’s


) use adaptive and diagnostic assessments to create personalized learning paths across the curriculum.

A number of open platforms--including ActivateInstruction, Gooru, OpenEd, and PowerMyLearning
-- allow teachers to build playlists of resources.

4. Profiles & Portfolios.
As outlined in a Digital Learning Now paper,

Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles

, the key to customized learning is comprehensive learner profiles. Learner profiles include portfolios, a digital collection of a
student’s best work. (See Getting Smart features on eduClipper, Pathbrite, and Google Drive.)

5. Big blocks.
Tagore prayed
for a place, “Where knowledge is free / Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.” Instead, most high schools have
lost their way in the “dreary desert sand of dead habit.” Big blocks of time create the space to ask big questions.

Big History Project
is great content for a big integrated exploration of history, science, and social studies (read about how DSST uses it). Our new Deeper Learning paper describes how New Tech schools use
big integrated blocks to engage students.

Competency-based progressions.
When students are asked to show what they know and progress based on demonstrated mastery, it improves agency, engagement, and outcomes. CompetencyWorks is an online community, hosted by iNACOL, is devoted to
competency education and a great resource.

A system of micro-credentials, or badges, could open up many ways for secondary and postsecondary students to learn. Here’s a sketch of what a DIY High might look like.

7. Flex schools.
Combining on the online backbone, flex schools take advantage of onsite guidance and support--and sometimes leverage community assets. Miami-Dade has a
network of 8 iPrep flex high schools. There are at least 10 Reasons Every District Should Open a Flex School.

8. Community as School.
Big Picture
and Edvisions are two high school networks that leverage community-based learning. Service learning can be a great
way to build efficacy, agency and a track record of success in making a contribution. At Tacoma School of the Arts students ride a trolley car between museums, theaters, UW Tacoma and their
home base.

9. Work-based learning.
For students, being around people they can imagine themselves becoming (per Debbie Meier) is invaluable. The Cristo Rey Network makes a work study part of every week. Here is a recap of a conversation with Jobs for the Future about Best Practices in Work-Based Learning.

10.Online Learning.
Self-blend options can help students accelerate or catch up. It’s now easy and affordable to offer every 30 Advanced Placement classes, 6 world languages,
and hundreds of electives.

All of this customization requires a robust guidance and support systems to make sure that choices add up to college and career readiness. (We’ll publish a
paper on next-gen guidance systems next month.)

Customized learning is for teachers too! Every teacher should have an individual development plan (like the ones available on Bloomboard) connected to a library of digital resources.

Looking ahead.
The intersection of interest-based (for me) and standards-base (for degree) is the most interesting and fertile intersection of our time.

For Me

For Degree
















If we’re clear about a few priority outcomes for students it opens up many high engagement pathways. Badging and micro-credentialing will recognize
achievement in nontraditional pathways.

Rather than terminal degrees it will become more common to think of degrees as a commencement of lifelong learning marked by badges, references, and
artifacts of personal bests.

MIND Research Institute, CompassLearning, Curriculum Associates and Dreambox are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.
Tom Vander Ark is a director at iNACOL

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.