Does Tech Support Personalized Learning—or Distract Us From What’s Really Important?

Does Tech Support Personalized Learning—or Distract Us From What’s Really Important?

“Personalized learning” is a term that is no stranger to interpretation—even to the point that writers have started to argue about whether it’s worth defining or not (just check out here and here.) But no matter how a school or district defines it, is it worth including technology in that definition—or does edtech merely distract educators from understanding and delivering on what students really need?

In early March, three education research experts—Eileen Rudden of Boston’s LearnLaunch, Chris Liang-Vergara of Chicago’s LEAP Innovations, and Muhammed Chaudhry of the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley Education Foundation—joined EdSurge on a panel to discuss the very answer to this muddy and oftentimes challenging question. Below is an excerpt from that panel; to listen to the whole kit and caboodle, check out the EdSurge podcast.

EdSurge: “Personalized learning” is a phrase that has gotten thrown around relatively frequently over the past one to two years. What does that mean or not mean to each of you? And anyone can start.

Eileen Rudden: Personalized learning is an umbrella term, really, for a variety of approaches to learning. For the past 15 years or so, educators have been asked to differentiate. Personalized learning is the next phase of differentiation, that also brings in student voice and choice, and brings in the capabilities to match the student with a lesson at the zone of their proximal development.

Muhammed Chaudhry: If there is a classroom of 30 kids, and let's say, Mary Jo and I were both in that class, she was naturally number one and I was number 30. We force ranked everyone, 1 to 30. She was number one, I was number thirty. Currently, Chris, being the teacher, would teach to number 16. One behind the middle. Mary Jo would be bored, and I'd be lost. So, I see personalized learning as an opportunity—how do we have Mary Jo take off, and have me catch up in that scenario?

Chris Liang-Vergara: I’ve got a kindergartner who keeps me humble for sure, but in the work at LEAP Innovations, when we first started, “personalized learning” was getting thrown around all the time with schools and educators and edtech fans. We did about a year-long project to just bring some definition to what the student experience is in a personalized learning classroom, because it's a mix of values, what you believe in, and how you kind of create it. And, at the end, we came across four main parts.

The first one is learner-focused. (Does the teacher understand him in terms of strength, needs and interests?...How do you start with the child first, instead of the curriculum?) The second thing is learner-demonstrated. (He needs scaffolding, so how do you provide that?) Third one is learner-led. (It's the student-agency piece. Kids aren't just sitting there passively letting information wash over. How do they set goals?) And then the last thing for us, which I think is big and important for me in this kind of personalized learning, is learner-connected—in that learning is social, it's not alone.

That concept—the learners being at the center… But I've seen examples of schools where they claim that they do personalized learning, and the kids have on headphones, staring at a computer. What works when you talk to schools or districts who say, "We want to go personalized, and here's how we're going to do it"?

Chris Liang-Vergara: I think it just comes down to, "Find your way." I've seen schools who, for showmanship, bring in a lot of edtech, but they don't have a 'why' behind it.

Step one, build your team. You don't want a superstar teacher trying to go off and do this because they'll do it, they'll burn out and they'll leave the organization, and then everything just kind of recedes back. You need that core team working together and then really figuring out the “why.”

So, it's not really the technology that's the biggest issue, then? It's all of the constructs around it? The vision? The team? Where have you seen this work (or, for that matter, not work?)

Eileen Rudden: One of my favorite schools that we've been working with is a very poor school in Boston, McCormick Middle School. Because of a committed core group of literacy teachers, who actually came to us from Teach Plus, they just have embraced working with a particular edtech product to get a better understanding of where their students are. 80% of students were below grade level, to start. These teachers wanted to understand exactly what students needed, and they have really been closing gaps and moving that school forward.

Because of the interest of that teacher group, they've been able to move from, "We want to differentiate" to much more personalized instruction. Is it all-student voice and choice? No. There's some student selection, there is some student decision-making about how to demonstrate mastery. Is it completely mastery-based? No. But, they're moving along what I think is a continuum. I'm just so proud of the progress that they've made and that they're going to continue to make, as a part of that journey to personalized.

You mentioned an edtech product, Eileen. I must admit, it feels extremely challenging to find supporting tools for personalized learning because when it comes to edtech, I often see educators struggle with the “paradox of choice.” If you have thousands of edtech options, you're much less satisfied with your choice versus if you had fewer options. And on the other end, are there any spaces that you think technology could do a better job of solving where things haven't been developed?

Chris Liang-Vergara: I think what we're all trying to work to do is help the community evolve to be smarter consumers, essentially.

I think the shininess of edtech is starting to fade away. I think it's sort of a good thing, because we want to make sure it's rigorous, efficacious, and not just another worksheet generator or something to that nature. But, I think part of it is on the teacher side and purchasing side of being smart enough, like we're not going to buy the crap anymore and actually look for quality products.

Efficacy takes a long time to prove. How can you do it quickly enough to actually make judgment calls about tools, before some of those tools might actually disappear?

Muhammed Chaudhry: There are different levels. What we do is rapid-cycle testing. But, it's going back to, a lot of times, what are you measuring? A lot of districts and schools don't know what they want to measure. And you don't want to do a double blind study with these tools, because by the time the study's done, the product will have evolved over a couple of generations.

Chris Liang-Vergara: It's two-way communication. The tech developers and teachers, they're partners in all of this, because at the end of the day, we're trying to create the best experience for our students. And when it comes to the efficacy side, I think we need to make sure we expand our definition of success beyond just test score gains. There's a lot more to that in terms of growth of the child and education.

Mary Jo Madda—@MJMadda—is Manager of Audience Development (previously Senior Editor) at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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