Personalized learning, or personalization, is the idea that every student learns differently, so educators should adapt the pace and instructional approach to meet the needs of each learner. Just like most buzzwords and silver bullets in education, personalized learning promises to solve the age-old problem of reaching and engaging all students.
On the surface, personalized learning sounds awesome. It makes sense that by creating more space for students to learn at their own pace and access curriculum that is relevant, engaging and on their level, we can continue to shrink the ever-present achievement gap.
But a level of skepticism is warranted. Veteran educators have seen a multitude of educational fads come and go. They are right to question whether student-centric methods are going to solve all the problems in education. My work inbox is often spammed by companies, conferences and products boasting that personalized learning is the solution to all of my life’s #TeacherProblems.
Just as with most educational initiatives, implementation is everything. With proper execution, sustainable funding and teacher input, personalized learning can hope to create equitable learning spaces where all students have what they need to succeed, regardless of the circumstances.
Both the Digital Divide and the Achievement Gap Must Be Closed
We live in a society today where we no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers to access an education. Part of the personalized learning equation includes classroom teachers becoming adept in creating learning spaces where they are the guide and mentor for learning, rather than the single point of entry to learning.
With the advent of increasingly available devices in the classroom, one could say that technology is the great equalizer, but that presumes that everyone has the same access. That would presume that the fundamental formulas for school funding across the nation are equitable. Though there are some positives to having local control over school and district issues, the inconsistencies in school funding models traditionally hurt poor communities the most. In today’s tech-enabled school environment, this means that the age-old achievement gap has a coinciding new-technology-access gap between the rich and poor.
Additionally, access to personalized learning goes way beyond simply having devices in front of children. Personalization involves a blend of technology and traditional teaching models, so having a sustainable plan for each student to have a device is an integral part of the puzzle.
But purchasing devices is only step one. Districts must be prepared to support ongoing costs: instructional and technology coaches, sustainable funding for IT services, research based apps to help with instruction, student safety, security and even behavior management.
What does Real Personalization Look Like?
This fall, I had the pleasure of attending a personalized learning tour with NEBaseCamp Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Office of Innovation. The agenda for that day included touring three different schools in three different districts to see personalized learning, self-directed learning environments, Project Based Learning and mentoring in practice. The schools that I visited that day spanned the socio-economic gamut, and each school had its own unique way of implementing personalized and project-based learning.
One Rhode Island school we visited was an elementary school in a large urban district. The school offered personalized learning to fourth- and fifth-graders using a third-party Learning Management System. All the classrooms I visited were decorated similarly, with the third-party product’s language around the room. Students were navigating a canned curriculum at their own pace, with the mentorship of their teachers.
When we spoke to teachers and administrators, they raved about the program. When I asked about the scripted nature of the program, they all insisted that they had autonomy over the content in their classrooms, and the scripted lessons were just a piece of the puzzle. The real benefit of the program was the way it transformed the classroom from teacher- to student-centered with the help of a robust learning and mentoring technology platform.
By contrast, later in the day we visited a middle school in an affluent community that is regularly regarded as top in the state for education. In this district, school leaders believed in building the capacity of their educators to create personalized and project-based learning experiences for their students.
The teachers I observed were teaching lessons they had created with help from the Buck Institute for Education through advanced professional development in project-based learning. The school and district leadership were dedicated to the idea that their students would succeed, not by just “covering” a curriculum, but by providing deeper learning experiences for their students.
Reflecting on the tour later, I couldn’t help comparing the two approaches and wondering which truly provides the most equity and agency for the students involved. Regardless, it was great to see districts that were dedicated to shifting their practices from teacher to student-centered, and I was inspired by how all of the schools I visited emphasized deeper learning experiences, self-paced learning practices and increased structured mentoring opportunities for students and teachers.
Schools are often a mirror of the societies in which they exist. Schools are tasked with solving an increasing number of issues with ever shrinking financial support. Personalized learning, with the proper implementation of student-centered learning that is sustainably funded and teacher-lead, we can hope to reach all students, regardless of the circumstance in an effort to close both the technology and achievement gap in this country.