personalized learning

One District’s Experience with Personalized Learning at Both Ends of the Tech Spectrum

Anyone who follows the world of education knows that “Personalized Learning” is said to be the way of the future. Personalized Learning, however, is more than just an education buzzword — it’s a multi-faceted endeavor with many benefits, beneficiaries, challenges, and rewards.

In an excellent article on the Blended Learning category of The Hechinger Report website, titled Must a classroom be high-tech to make personalized learning work?,” Jamie Martines takes us on a tour of how one large Arizona school district is implementing Personalized Learning pilot programs in some of its schools to assess the impact and success of such initiatives on different grade levels with varying degrees of access to technology.
Martines evaluates a few of the district’s schools, interviewing students and teachers at the 4th, 7th and 10th grade levels, to see how the introduction of a new method of teaching and learning impacts the school communities. In schools with the infrastructure necessary to support tech-forward programs, students seemed to enjoy the ability to do self-directed work on computers that track their progress by compiling data that teachers can then mine to create appropriate activities and evaluate mastery levels.
Most of the schools in the large district, however, still rely on a traditional classroom setup, with the teacher in front of the class and the students working primarily with pen and paper — but that doesn’t mean that Personalized Learning doesn’t have its place. Answering the question of whether teachers can implement Personalized Learning without classroom devices, Martines evokes the district’s use of “little data,” or “information collected daily or in real-time on each student’s academic progress.” Analyzing little data, such as which words a student had trouble with while reading a specific passage, or how many times they needed to re-read a chapter to deepen comprehension, can help develop a Personalized Learning plan focused on a particular student’s unique strengths and weaknesses (without necessitating the use of copious technology tools in the classroom).
Perhaps not so coincidentally, this district is one of the state’s best performers and has greatly increased in size, currently serving more than 25,000 students. Thanks to this growth and the need to keep track of students transitioning throughout the district, administrators determined a need to create “their own three-part system, called iPAL (I Plan, I Assess, I Learn), to track the results of state tests and help teachers and administrators target and address students’ areas of weakness,” according to Martines. And while this district-level system adequately collects bigger data, it doesn’t collect the little data that teachers depend on to create daily lessons. For that, groups of teachers at different grade levels and in various subject areas work together to find ways of collecting and utilizing data that work best for them and their students.
In the schools whose coursework is online, it’s easy for teachers to check student progress and “use the time saved by not having to plan lessons and grade papers to develop one-on-one tutoring sessions and other activities to give students other ways to explore the material.” But in the schools without this online system, the teachers are finding creative ways to offer the same level of personalization, such as one elementary school’s program called “All Time Best.” All Time Best “is designed to track students’ progress toward meeting state learning standards in math and English.” This is a much more basic system that relies on student-reported data: if a student correctly answered a question, they raise their hand and then graph the result in their notebook. Students answer a limited number of these questions per day, and the small amount of targeted data that is collected helps teachers track each student’s progress in a specific area. Then teachers can divide students with similar skill levels into groups for practice and re-teaching.
In exercises like All Time Best, the creation and customization of student notebooks plays a part in the personalization aspect of the experience. Students feel as though teachers are getting to know them on an individual level when they are encouraged to be creative and take accountability for their own learning.
There are other ways in which teachers are encouraging students to take a more active role as well. Some of the district’s high school teachers have implemented Google spreadsheets as a way for students to track their scores, progress, and potentially recognize patterns in their weaker areas. Practices like these are mutually beneficial for students and teachers — students have ownership of their education and learn real-life skills, while teachers use the feedback to better inform instructional choices.
Open seating and sofas have also been introduced at one of the district’s schools to replace rows of assigned single desks and encourage freedom of choice and movement. Many students initially express mixed feelings about such changes taking place in their schools, whether they’d become accustomed to and fixated upon the traditional classroom desk set-up, or worried that they may not excel without the predictable, teacher-directed instruction that self-directed learning dodges.
Overall, administrators at the district hope to see Personalized Learning efforts implemented and thriving in all of its schools, and they’re well-equipped to make that happen. One of the more significant takeaways from all the data they gather is the impact on the one-on-one student-teacher relationship. Keeping in mind that impersonal data is useless, administrators and teachers are able to facilitate deeper, more meaningful connections with individual students through these efforts (and they don’t intend to stop any time soon).
Eduspire Solutions shares this vision for Personalized Learning, and we have developed specific software tools such as FlexTime Manager, SCHedOOL, and VoiceChoicer to help districts bring more personalization, voice and choice into their classrooms. For more information about any of our products or to schedule a personalized webinar, please visit