Exploring Personalized Learning in Pittsburgh

EdSurge stops in Pittsburgh on a national tour to discuss personalized learning with teachers and school leaders across the country.

It was the first day back to school for most districts in Southwestern PA, and teachers put in 12-hour days preparing their classrooms, attending meetings, and emailing parents. It was also storming in the East End of Pittsburgh, with heavy rains and lightning. And yet, over 20 educators from around the region trekked in to Duolingo’s offices in East Liberty to attend a roundtable hosted by EdSurge, an online publication covering the educational technology field. Clearly, these educators were very interested in the topic at hand: personalized learning.

EdSurge, in collaboration with the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, is traveling around the country hosting similar discussions with educators and school administrators. Their questions for the Pittsburgh crowd centered around the best practices in personalized learning, the challenges educators face implementing personalized learning, and how technology plays a role in supporting it.

Defining the Concept

While teachers, superintendents, university professors, and school technology directors munched on quesadillas and nachos, EdSurge host Megan McMahon asked them to define personalized learning. John Choi, CEO of a company creating educational robots, offered that personalized learning happens when the student takes charge of his or her own education with passion and purpose, deciding his or her own goals at a self-directed pace. Rachelle Dene Poth agreed–her Spanish students at Riverview High School choose their own semester projects, studying anything from the rise of female presidents in Latin American nations to comparisons between the lives of teenagers in US and Latin American countries.

One group of teachers offered that personalized learning provides equitable access to education, since students have so many different learning styles and thrive in different ways. Personalized learning, another group decided, should be flexible, offer resources, rely on creativity and imagination, engagement, an intrinsic desire to learn.

Justin Aglio, who helped coordinate the roundtable, has seen this intrinsic love of learning develop in exciting ways. He is the director of academic achievement and innovation in Montour School District, which has added a 40-minute personalized learning time period every day.

Every afternoon, students at Montour can consult an app and choose what they’d like to do, with choices ranging from walking the track to seeking History tutoring. Aglio said, “We did this after our principal shadowed the students during their school day and realized it was monotonous. Now, during Personalized Learning Time, students can take a deep breath, find something they’re passionate about, and teachers say it’s their favorite time of day, too.”

Challenges with Personalized Learning

While all of these examples sound amazing, there were also questions about obstacles to implementing this type of pedagogy. Jeff Ritter, who chairs the communications department at La Roche College, wanted to understand how the discussed projects and pedagogies fit into mandatory assessments, measures of achievement, or state-regulated curriculum requirements.

Tyler Samstag, director of instructional innovation at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, is concerned with how schools can “operationalize personalized learning beyond a vague definition, beyond the jargon.” He asks, “How can we flesh out what personalized learning looks like in the classroom?” Samstag supports teachers in 42 school districts and hears their obstacles in regards to time–how, among the time spent on curriculum mandates mentioned by Ritter, does a teacher find time to adapt instruction for up to 120 students?

Ed McKaveney, technology director for Hampton School District, has seen successful examples of project-based learning throughout his district, but also faces the challenges mentioned by Ritter and Samstag. He says, “As the technology director, of course I can see some ways that technology can help with assessments, such as badges and learning pathways,” but McKaveney pointed to the difficulty in coordinating a recent open house at Hampton’s middle school. Students selected their own projects, ranging from an escape room to original puzzles and artwork in various mediums. The results were fun for the students, but McKaveney remembers the challenge of communicating with all involved faculty on the project timeline, coordinating projects across different disciplines. “It was a significant challenge,” he says.

The Rewards of Taking Risks

Montour’s Justin Aglio spoke to some of the challenges his colleagues faced with personalized learning, and agreed that personalized learning can be a risk. “The biggest problem was that we were the only school we knew of to do something like this on a massive, schoolwide scale.” Aglio said nobody knew what to expect, what it might look like, just that they felt like it would benefit their students.

They ran into surprises. For instance, the Random Acts of Kindness club drew 125 students–over 100 more students than expected. But they also saw unanticipated engagement from students who previously could not stay for after-school clubs due to obligations to care for younger siblings at home. Students use the time to seek counseling, retake failed exams, and teachers can also block off this time to brainstorm with each other about lesson plans or interdisciplinary work. The results spoke to some of Ritter’s questions about mandated assessments. Aglio said, “Our standardized test scores went up in every area, but moreover our students and faculty want to do better, not just on tests. Our students are excited about the process.”

What Comes Next

The roundtable hosted by EdSurge continued a conversation that began in Pittsburgh earlier this year. Following the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference last fall, a group of educators formed the Personalized Learning Network with support from both the Grable Foundation and the Chang Zuckerberg initiative. The funding supported school districts sending teachers to conferences, hosting events, bringing in experts for professional development, all in hope of accelerating personalized learning in Pittsburgh.

For many educators, personalized learning is still conceptual, but Aglio is eager to talk about Montour expanding PLT. He said, “I loved the conversations about changing school culture and finding the time for personalized learning, because those are two huge barriers.”

EdSurge’s Megan McMahon says EdSurge will work to compile the stories and data they gathered from this talk and similar ones nationwide. In conjunction with Digital Promise, they will host the Fusion Conference in November, bringing together K-12 educators eager to learn more about putting personalized learning into practice.


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