Scaling personalized learning across a state might sound like an oxymoron, but officials from Rhode Island’s Office of Innovation are taking on the task. The Statewide Personalized Learning Initiative just released a white paper that could inspire others to create and align the pieces necessary for expansive personalized learning efforts.
“We are trying to leverage our work with our partners to scale personalized learning and become the first state in the nation with a new model on a systemic level,” says Daniela Fairchild, director of education in the Rhode Island Office of Innovation.
The framework maps out broad goals and objectives, calling on districts to create a school-based vision for learning, ramp up technological infrastructure, pilot new learning models, actively track successes and failures, and develop a plan for expanding successful pilot efforts. The ultimate goal is to craft a clear vision and methodology for instituting personalized learning throughout a state. Officials believe that by establishing personalized learning throughout the state they can ensure students are ready for college, career and life.
According to the paper, the competencies they intend to cover will enable learners to: possess social and emotional skills, have the ability to connect learned concepts and lessons across disciplines, possess an in-depth content mastery across all core disciplines, and empower them to take ownership of their learning. However, for educators to accomplish these goals students, families, teachers, school and district leaders, teacher preparation programs and state leaders all must fulfill obligations outlined in the white paper.
Even in a small state with 306 schools serving 142,014 students, this type of systematic shift cannot happen overnight. The level of collaboration required to implement the changes properly could take years to develop, acknowledge the report’s authors. That means all stakeholders need to be in for the long haul.
“This white paper is just the kick-off of this work,” says Culatta, “Next month we will put together our research network, followed by pilots in the summer and fall.” The team hopes that as educators and politicians see students meeting content mastery goals set up in the models the desire to continue and scale the work will spread.
One prerequisite to rallying educators, policymakers, researchers and other stakeholders around this effort is simply defining what “personalized learning” means. “When we say personalized learning it means different things to people in the room. Everyone seems to like the term, but it’s interpreted broadly, which is one of the roadblocks to implementing it,” says Culatta.
It took the research team six months, collaborating with teachers’ unions, federal and state departments of education, school administrators, teachers, and parents at town halls, a conference and online forums, to arrive at this definition:
“Personalized learning is a student experience in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Standards- aligned learning objectives, instructional methods, and instructional content (and its sequencing) may all vary based on learner needs. Also, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests and often self-initiated.”
For Culatta, this effort feels like a natural follow-up to his previous work at the U.S. Department of Education, where he served as the Director of the Office of Educational Technology. “At the federal level we supported personalized learning projects through funding and guidance, but the state level is really where the implementation happens. We built the plan, and we do the footwork on the ground in schools,” says Culatta.
Culatta’s shift from federal to state work mirrors a broader national shift towards state leadership. With states expected to implement pieces of the Every Student Succeeds Act this upcoming school year, and small government believers, like Betsy DeVos, in leadership, the onus will be on states to design and implement reform plans.
Fairchild also believes that states must take the lead, insisting that they must create an environment conducive to building and scaling personalized learning. According to the Innovation Team, states can create this environment by making sure policy barriers are removed, understanding the components necessary for models to work, setting up collaboration opportunities, sharing best practices, and supporting research efforts behind the new models. One of the biggest challenges, noted in the report, is getting and keeping everyone on board. “Mandating that districts adopt a specific approach to personalized learning—especially before they are ready—would be a mistake,” reads the paper.
However, according to Culatta, Rhode Island already had a few schools building personalized learning models on a grassroots level, so pieces are in place for his team to scale the work in pre-existing public schools across the state. “We are trying to set up Rhode Island as sort of a lab space because of the size and nimbleness of the state,” says Culatta. “Getting innovations to scale can happen faster here than other places.”