Educators Gather in Pittsburgh to Personalize Learning

Despite the nebulous definition, personalized learning has garnered plenty of practitioners and fans in recent years.

A middle school math program implemented in some New York City classrooms is called Teach to One—originally School of One—and at first glance, that’s a major misnomer. Enter a school where Teach to One is in progress, and you’ll see not one, but nearly 200 students participating in the experience simultaneously.

The “One” refers to the individualized learning plans each student follows. An online system continually assesses the students’ work, drawing up daily lesson plans tailored to each person’s needs and skills. Some students in the massive class are sent to work in small groups, while others go listen to a lecture or work alone on a computer. Teachers are stationed throughout the space, working in different ways with the students.

Studies on the effectiveness of the unusual math class have yielded inconclusive results, reports EdWeek.

Teach to One is an attempt at personalized learning, an approach whose definition can be as hazy as the results of its evaluations. Generally, it refers to teaching and learning that empowers students to learn at their own pace and in styles that make sense for them. Typically, technology is used to customize lessons for individual students, or to allow learners to progress through the work as quickly or as slowly as they need to.

Despite the nebulous definition, personalized learning has garnered plenty of practitioners and fans in recent years. In fact, some educators have long practiced what has been called “differentiated instruction”—teaching that attempts to correspond to students’ diverse learning styles. The advent of educational technology has earned the approach new fans who see more opportunities for implementation. They are working hard to figure out exactly how to make learning a personalized experience—and what resources and pedagogy that requires.[pullquote]Any classroom teacher can tell you students have different learning styles and speeds.[/pullquote]

Next week, when educators and administrators meet in Pittsburgh for the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference, personalized learning will be a hot topic. Whether they explicitly use that term or not, many of the sessions at the Nov. 7-8 gathering explore how to leverage technology to promote learning that is tailored to individual students’ needs.

One event, for example, will serve as the official public launch of the Kandoolu Learning Navigator, a personalized learning tool aligned with Pennsylvania Core Standards. The mobile assessment app, created by OnHand Schools, gives real-time results to teachers and suggests resources tailored to meet each student’s needs.

Another session at the conference (Remake Learning is a sponsor) addresses how teachers can use technology to design lessons that empower individuals. Called Creating Quality Content for Personalized Learning, the event covers the use of Google apps to create interactive presentations or online lessons students can navigate on their own.

Personalized learning is in some ways a fundamental rethinking of traditional pedagogy, where all students in a classroom cover the same material over the same period of time. And discarding decades of standardized lessons and pacing doesn’t come easy.

This year’s 2016 K-12 New Media Consortium/Consortium for School Networking Horizon Report, which tracks trends in education and ed tech, deemed the implementation of personalized learning a “wicked challenge.”

[pullquote]The Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference is Nov. 7-8.[/pullquote]It is “complex to even define, much less address,” the authors, a panel of education and technology experts, quip. The main barriers, they explain, are the lack of infrastructure in schools and the need to prepare teachers and incorporate effective pedagogy. The lack of a concrete definition of “personalized learning” also presents a challenge for researchers attempting to study its efficacy.

Perhaps, then, the key is to take a page out of the approach’s own book, and personalize the implementation of personalized learning.

Consider one researcher’s observations regarding the promise of—and barriers to—personalized learning in rural areas. Many rural schools, writes Carolyn Chuong at EdSurge, don’t have reliable broadband access, let alone iPads equipped with real-time assessment software.

Still, a personalized system where students are working on different projects can free up limited teachers to attend to students who need one-on-one help. In cases where there is internet access, personalized learning software can give interested students access to courses not available in the selection at their small schools. When that isn’t an option, local internships can create a more flexible learning environment where students who thrive in hands-on settings can engage in a “lesson” that makes more sense for them and their personal needs.

Any classroom teacher, after all, can tell you that students have different learning styles and speeds. “Personalized learning” may not have secured its spot in the dictionary, but it is a nod—and an active attempt to respond—to that diversity.

Published November 01, 2016