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‘It’s Personalized, Online, and Blended’: How to Make Edtech Buzzwords Substantive

Personalized Learning. 21st Century Skills. Social Emotional Learning. Growth Mindset.

Education has a long tradition of being rife with buzzwords, and these are just some of the latest ones thrown about today. Buzzwords are not inherently bad. They usually have their roots in a strong idea that can push education in a positive way. But, like in a game of telephone, the idea gets distorted as it starts to spread virally. I am especially conscious of this since my title, Personalized Learning Manager at Alpha Public Schools, contains one of the current hottest buzzwords on the edtech market.

Consider this situation: An administrator hears a buzzword multiple times at a conference and excitedly comes back to implement it at their school. Before you know it, the buzzword starts trending on Twitter and vendors stamp it on their marketing. Schools with just a trace of the original idea claim to be leading innovators in the field.

It’s time to be better—by making buzzwords actually mean something.

Here are some ways to give substance to buzzwords. Since “personalized learning” is the buzzword I interact with the most, I am going to frame my advice mostly with this context, but it can be applied to any buzzword du jour.

Recognize That Buzzwords are Not Quick Solutions to Complex Problems

Buzzwords are helpful because they are sticky and help ideas spread quickly. But, the complexity of the ideas often get lost in the simplicity of the buzzword.

The Issue: Excited educators and entrepreneurs get pumped up from a video, article, presentation proclaiming the incredible power of “personalized learning” and only see the rosy-hued examples of schools implementing it at a high level, like Summit or Intrinsic. What is often not seen, however, is the incredible amount of effort and time that went into planning, investing, crashing, and iterating that brought the schools to this point. We need to unpack the intricacies of the buzzword to carry out these systems successfully.

A Solution: To combat this, dig into the systems and culture that make the buzzword work. Alpha’s middle schools use a station rotation model that leverages online programs so teachers can pull small groups for deeper discussions. From a visit, it may not be immediately obvious the amount of effort required to build student investment in data, through trackers and public displays, or the repeated practice that finally resulted in students' ability to move between stations quickly.Definitely not seen in a quick class visit: the not-so glamorous tasks, like navigating through multiple dashboards to pull data or creating targeted playlists on online programs. Seek the nitty gritty details that serve as the foundation for what you see.

Connect the Buzzword to Your Context and Environment

The Issue: Sometimes, leaders get blinded by the excitement and energy from a trend. Too often, buzzwords are dropped as if they can be implemented in silos—but in reality they require integration within existing systems and visions. It’s crucial to be able to articulate the pain points that you are aiming to solve and how this buzzword fits with the overall vision of your organization.

The Solution: Make sure you know why you want to bring the buzzword to your school or district, and what it looks like for your specific environment. As a school leader or district leader, make sure the answer is not to keep up with the Joneses or just to receive a grant that lists its implementation as a condition. Organizations like Citybridge (DC) and LEAP Innovations (Chicago) run programs to help schools in their regions use design thinking to identify the “why.” You can also do design thinking yourself for free.

From there, break down what the buzzword actually looks like in your context and what success ultimately looks like. There are so many ways to implement a buzzword like personalized learning into schools. Know why you are doing the version that you choose.

For example, Alpha Cindy Avitia High School’s principal Will Eden plans critically around leveraging time to personalize learning—and this relates to both student and teacher time. In the school’s inaugural year, this is most obviously seen through a flexible block where students receive support on the class of their greatest need or attend seminars for deeper learning. And for teachers, systems are in place to give them time to review data and select students that need support in their classes.

Eden has taken buzzwords like “personalized learning” and “flexible learning environments,” and defined what they look like at his school, systematized them, and is iterating on it to get closer to the ultimate vision. But his vision is particular to Alpha—and may not work within other school contexts.

Pay It Forward—Share Your Difficulties!

The Issue: No one is perfect. No school is perfect. When organizations are vulnerable and share what difficulties they have faced in implementing the latest buzzwords, the help offered to other districts and schools is immense.

The Solution: Whether schools share their struggles publicly or in more private conversations, the point is to share at all. Take Hybrid High School in Los Angeles, who explained what challenges they faced their first year as a ‘personalized learning” school. Or check out Blendmylearning and Next Generation Learning Challenge’s blog, which have stories of challenges and best practices from pioneers of blended learning and personalized learning.

Trying to install a new paradigm is not impossible, shockingly hard but sometimes, the hopeful end blinds us to the incredible time and effort needed in the process—and the generality of these buzzwords doesn’t do much to clarify those steps. Build off of these aforementioned lessons and share your own by continuing the conversation in the comments. How are you breaking down buzzwords to make them tangible in your school or organization?

Jin-Soo Huh (@JinSooDHuh) is an EdSurge columnist and currently the Personalized Learning Manager at Alpha Public Schools. Formerly, he served as the Director of Technology at KIPP Chicago Schools where he supported the amazing school leaders and teachers implementing instructional technology and personalized learning.

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