By Mary Patterson
Personalizing learning is not a new idea; teachers have sought to design meaningful instruction to meet individual student needs for decades.
According to Susan D. Patrick, the executive director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Vienna, Va., personalized learning in today's schools essentially amounts to the "differentiation" of lessons for students of different skill levels, or efforts to help students move at their own pace. But she adds, personalized learning must also promote "student agency"—basically, giving students more power through either digital tools or other means, accounting for how they learn best, what motivates them, and their academic goals. The most effective digital tools support that purpose, she said. "Technology can help provide students with more choices on how they're going to learn a lesson," Ms. Patrick said. "[It] empowers teachers in personalizing learning" and "empowers students through their own exercise of choice. (Education Week 10/20/14)
As an elementary school student in the late ‘70’s. I participated in the SRA Reading Laboratory. It was personalized and individualized. I read stories interesting to me, practiced skills, took assessments and progressed at my own pace. Did I become more aware of my learning progress? Did my teacher?
Probably, not. To me, it was just a series of tasks to be completed in the classroom. Most of the assessments were either self-graded or peer graded and self-reported to the teacher. Today, SRA Reading lab still exists, but in a digital format. Instead of turning in a paper with answers to assessments, a click on the computer records student responses and aggregates data into a teacher dashboard.
So, is it this idea of using learning analytics in a teacher dashboard that holds the most promise for the K-12 space? Perhaps. According to the 2011 Horizon report, the authors indicated that the greatest promise for learning analytics will be in differentiating instruction by helping to determine individual student needs.
In a recent Distinguished Lecture at the National Science Foundation, Candice Thille, the founding director of the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) at Carnegie Mellon University and at Stanford University, a senior research fellow in the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University discussed how we make use of expertise from the learning sciences to produce high-quality learning environments and how studies of student use inform both the next iteration of the environment and the underlying learning theory .
Technology today, she asserts, affords us more than access/convenience, personalization/simulation and crowd-sourcing. The Open Learning Initiative uses student data for continuous feedback loops to students, instructors, course designers and learning science researchers. Results of a study done at Carnegie Mellon University indicate that students using the OLI Statistics course at Carnegie Mellon achieved the same or better learning outcomes as the students in the tradition course in half the time (Lovette, M., Meyer, O., & Thille, C., 2008) .
This sounds great, but how will this translate to the K-12 space? Can it? Is this an answer to personalized learning? Will K-12 teachers twenty years from now assign courses to students for enrichment or remediation? Who will build these courses? As I look at this learning environment, I am skeptical.
On the student side, the current OLI platform encourages both academic and independent learners to participate. Students are introduced to a new concept, get the chance to apply what they’ve learned, receive immediate feedback and then are able to test their understanding. The activities and self-assessments, in combination with clear learning objectives, help students become aware of their learning progress. There is no instructor and no certificate or credit.
But what are the realities in a typical K-12 classroom? How does an educator craft personalized instruction for 30 to 150+ individual students, based on the data, during a forty-five minute planning period? Research has shown that adequate training, support, and time are critical components for teachers to successfully use data as a tool to guide classroom instruction and ultimately improve student achievement (Lachat & Smith, 2005; Wayman, 2005).
For a classroom teacher, another critical factor is how useful is the dashboard tool? Does the tool track data over time? For example, the data dashboard I use at the secondary level will only track students for a semester, even if it’s a year-long course. How robust is the infrastructure to run the software and have the traffic that’s desired? What are the implications of data privacy? Can teachers access data on past student performance without compromising privacy? How accurate is the perception of the data? Are multiple forms of data analyzed or just multiple-choice assessments? Does the tool assist teachers in planning for differentiation by suggesting groupings of students by mastery? What access, if any, will students have? What practices are best to teach students how to use data to guide their learning? If the time required to engage in data-driven instruction outweighs the instructional improvements, then teachers will resist (Wayman, 2005).
The question also remains as to who would create this adaptive, deep learning content with scaffolded instruction and feedback for the K-12 space? There are currently only twenty open courses available through the OLI platform. Building these courses is time and money intensive. The OLI is a grant-funded project in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Partners include, the National Science Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewitt Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, the Walter S. Johnson Foundation and the Spencer organization. Will public education ever have the substantial funding needed to replicate this endeavor?
There is no doubt that technology is influencing how we teach and how students learn. The Open Learning Initiative has demonstrated that it works for the motivated, independent college student who wants to advance or remediate their understanding, but I’m not sure that this particular model is easily transferable to the typical, American K-12 classroom. In a recent Washington Post article, “Blended learning: The great new thing or the great new hype?,” the author cites,” when looking for strong evidence of success around this strategy for K–12 students, very little “definitive evidence” or few significant results can be directly attributed to blended learning (Sparks 2015).” It is certain that more work in this area, as well as education policy, needs to be done.
Teachers, what are some challenges to personalized learning that YOU think researchers need to focus their efforts on? Let’s hear your thoughts on the topics of personalized learning, learning analytics and dashboards.
The CIRCLcenter.org can help you connect with a learning scientist researcher.
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