The Makings (and Misgivings) of a Statewide Effort to Personalize...

Personalized Learning

The Makings (and Misgivings) of a Statewide Effort to Personalize Learning in Massachusetts

By Tony Wan     Oct 17, 2017

The Makings (and Misgivings) of a Statewide Effort to Personalize Learning in Massachusetts

Public and private sectors both shape how students are prepared for future jobs and career opportunities. In Massachusetts, an emerging partnership between private funders and the state department of education aims to help teachers across the Commonwealth learn, share and spread best practices when it comes to leveraging new instructional models and technologies.

Formed in December 2016 by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MESE) and the LearnLaunch Institute, the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Edtech Consortium (MAPLE) functions as a professional learning community for 32 district members that aim to implement personalized learning. Together, these districts serve one in six students across the state’s public school system.

Last week, MAPLE released its first report: a landscape analysis of the tactics and tools used by its 15 “Catalyst” districts members that are farthest along with implementing district-wide plans to use digital tools to personalize learning.

Among the survey’s findings: Google Classroom is by far the most popular learning management platform, used in more than 80 percent of districts. (Moodle, Schoology, Blackboard and Summit round out the top five.) Social-emotional learning and data-driven instruction are the two most popular topics during teacher professional development. The most frequently cited form of personalization was teacher-led small groups with students rotating through individual and group instruction.

By highlighting the progress made by districts in implementing personalized learning plans, the report aims to create opportunities for educators to learn from each other. MAPLE facilitates networking events, focus groups, workshops and “learning tours” where educators visit each other’s schools. More than 500 educators have engaged in MAPLE-affiliated events since its launch, according to Eileen Rudden, co-founder of LearnLaunch.

“It’s our belief that educators are going to be the ones that are going to shape the world of personalizing learning,” she adds.

MAPLE also has 17 “General” districts that are interested in learning how to develop their own personalized learning strategies. They may look to Catalyst members like Natick Public School District, considered one of the state’s more experienced districts when it comes to personalized learning. It implemented a 1:1 device-to-student model in its middle schools in 2009, and expanded that to high schools in 2013.

Although Natick educators have used digital instructional tools such as BrainPOP, TenMarks, Newsela and Raz-Kids, technology is by no means mandatory to creating a personalized learning environment, says Anna Nolin, the assistant superintendent at Natick Public Schools. But it can help. “When you personalize learning well, you create deeper relationships between teachers and students. If some of the heavy lifting is done by the technology, it makes the relationship between teachers and students more central to the learning process.”

Personalized Learning, Personal Meanings

Personalized learning has become a fickle term for the education community, precisely because its definition is often open to personal interpretation. Some associate it bluntly with the use of technology to drive instruction. Others say such tools play only a small role.

Many organizations, including LEAP Innovation and The Institute for Personalized Learning, have created different frameworks for the term. MAPLE defines it as a combination of six elements: competency-based progression, personal connections, learner profiles, flexible learning environments, personal learning paths, and technology.

Nolin says MAPLE aims to give districts a chance to see what these nebulous terms look like in practice. The balance of those components will look different from district to district as each develop their own identities and needs around how to best serve teachers and students.

MAPLE’s definition is the result of research into which instructional tactics would resonate most with Massachusetts’ educators, says Kenneth Klau, director of digital learning at MESE. “What personalized learning actually looks like is really up to the districts,” he says. Technology, he notes, is “necessary but not sufficient alone in bringing personalized learning to all kids equitably at scale.”

“You can personalize learning just fine without technology. Sometimes, it is just a distraction,” says Klau. “What MAPLE is saying is that if we’re talking about system-wide change, let’s ask: ‘What is a district’s vision, what are the specific goals, and what are the experiences kids and adults should have?”

Personal Concerns

Yet the relationship between the state’s department of education and LearnLaunch has raised questions about the appropriate boundaries between public education and private interests.

In a strongly worded letter ( PDF) sent to MESE this August, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) charged the department with cozying up to educational technology companies, decrying the MAPLE/LearnLaunch partnership as a “new corporate-backed effort to reshape public education” and “yet another in a long line of attempts to teacher-proof education.”

“To the degree that technology displaces educators and stands between the educator and students, and students with each other, I think [personalized learning] is deeply problematic,” says Barbara Madeloni, MTA’s president. Specifically, she is concerned with “the degree to which personalized learning systems are based on algorithms that people don’t understand,” as well as the potential for data mining and exposure of private student information.

Another issue for the MTA is the involvement of LearnLaunch, which operates a separate, for-profit division that runs a business accelerator for education technology startups. Some seminars, titled “What to Consider When Selling into Schools from a Marketing Perspective” and “How to Engage Educators, Create Communities, Gain Purchasers and Brand Fans” has raised concerns that MAPLE may offer a channel for LearnLaunch-supported companies to sell their products into schools.

“The fox is guarding the henhouse,” the MTA letter reads. “This is wrong.”

LearnLaunch’s Rudden says that since MAPLE is a partnership with the state department of education, it is subject to the state laws and must operate according to strict conflict of interest policies. “MAPLE is not recommending any solutions,” states Rudden. “I believe we will empower educators to recommend [tools] to each other, but we are not going to do so ourselves.”

The idea that MAPLE exists to help LearnLaunch-affiliated companies sell products to schools “couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Klau. However, he recognizes that the MTA’s concerns about personalized learning and technology are not wholly unjustified. “Unfortunately there are examples of personalized learning that are really bad for kids,” says Klau, referring to pictures of students sitting in front of computers in cubicles.

Natick’s Nolin warns districts against rushing headfirst into buying devices and software without understanding what teachers and students need. “There can be a push from the school committee that says, ‘everyone’s going one-to-one [device per student], we must be as well’ without a thoughtful, strategic plan. If you don’t have a clear, strong instructional vision and mandate, throwing technology into the mix isn’t going to fix anything.”

MAPLE’s Next Moves

Going forward, Klau hopes MAPLE will help its members evaluate the efficacy and impact of their personalized learning initiatives. That was one of the shortcomings stated in the report: “Collectively, districts have not yet identified clear metrics to judge progress and effectiveness of moving towards personalized learning practices.” Success measures vary from better test scores and grades to improved student attendance, behavior, engagement and social well-being.

Articulating clearer success metrics may help assuage Madeloni’s fears that personalized learning is “an under-researched experiment on students, with no clear sense that it is valuable.”

However MAPLE’s district members embark on their personalized learning journey, one thing is clear: technology will be used to support their efforts. “I don’t see how we can serve kids and families equitably without technology,” says Klau. “We can’t ignore its role.”

Tony Wan (@tonywan) is Managing Editor at EdSurge

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