Personalized learning has been a buzzword in education since the turn of the century. But what does that really mean? last fall, I met several education leaders to discuss this topic and codify what it looks like in the classroom.
Define personalized learning
Technology is associated with personalized learning for a variety of reasons. Since we can’t really be a teacher versus a student, the use of devices becomes important in helping students’ learning to be truly personal. Lindsey Blass, Education Specialist at Adobe, mentions that it’s not just about students plugging in devices while following a self-guided playlist. “We see personalized learning as students having true agency and ownership of their learning experience,” she shared.
Differentiation also plays a role in defining personalized learning. Zareen Poonen Levien, Director of Digital Learning at San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), suggests that technology can be leveraged to fully engage a student to give them choice and creativity. “A very important part of this is that students feel at home and have a place in the classroom,” she explained. Studies show that deeper learning occurs when students feel understood.
The student agency also plays an important role in personalized learning. Students thrive when they have choices about what they learn and how they interact with the content, such as “having a way for them to demonstrate their learning that is most meaningful to them”, adds Rebecca Hare, community engagement manager at Adobe. . Identifying all of these different pathways for students to demonstrate their learning is the foundation of high quality personalized learning.
The current state of education and why personalized learning matters
Identifying personalized learning practices is the first step, but putting those practices into action can seem difficult. Teachers who feel overwhelmed while managing district and state mandates will struggle to create an optimal personalized learning environment. Levien works in a large urban district and has seen firsthand the difficulties of teaching and learning during and after Covid with interrupted classes and student absenteeism, symptoms of the trauma and uncertainty felt by many students.
This year we have also seen an influx of new teachers, as many experienced teachers have left the profession. While it is exciting to have new energy, it also means a lack of support staff to really help with interventions and learning extensions. So without that support, it’s essential to create an environment where students have that sense of agency and belonging. Technology plays a major role in increasing student engagement and enthusiasm for their learning.
One of the main lessons of the pandemic is that we don’t necessarily need direct synchronous teaching all the time. Hare mentions using video to record short direct teaching sessions, allowing students to review lessons at their own pace and time. It also allows the teacher to devote more time to individual or small group interactions.
Students aren’t the only ones who need to feel empowered in their learning. Blass mentions how important it is that teachers also feel that sense of ownership and choice when it comes to how they teach and learn.
Steps for schools to move from traditional to personal
San Francisco USD has dedicated a great deal of time and energy to bringing personalized learning into the classroom. They met with staff, students, leaders and parents to interview their community and understand what personalized learning really means.
“The first step is to identify the ideal state [of personalized learning] then recognize the current state to identify that gap between the two,” says Blass. This process requires more than just one person or department. It is a collaboration of all stakeholders, determining achievable mission-driven steps.
What an ideal personalized learning space looks like
Like instructional practices, the environment can strongly affect individualized learning outcomes. An ideal space is flexible so that students can create, do, debate, collaborate, and ultimately engage in the activities. “There’s no magic stool or table that’s going to solve this problem for everyone,” Hare says. Rather than hanging posters on the wall year-round, have students display their learning artifacts instead. Little touches, like letting students choose the song of the day when they walk into class, give them a bit more ownership of the classroom environment.
While it’s easy to see physical changes like additional devices and flexible furniture, Hare mentions how important it is to invest time in a teacher’s mindset before buying. It doesn’t take a lot of budget to make a few small changes in the learning environment to make it more personalized. An additional consideration Blass mentioned was that as a teacher, it’s okay to create your own space in the classroom. Teachers spend most of their waking hours in their classroom, so why not make it a more comfortable and creative space?
Make personalized learning ubiquitous
One of the challenges of personalized learning is getting all teachers in a building to buy in and believe in what is possible. Giving teachers the chance to see themselves in action has far more impact than attending training in personalized learning theory. Getting substitute teachers so teachers can observe others is one way, but in SFUSD they also use video. Since many teachers were already comfortable using Zoom due to the pandemic, checking in and sharing with colleagues is an easy and less daunting option.
The role of technology in personalized learning
The main objective of this webinar was to discuss the role that technology plays in personalized learning. While that certainly plays a role, it’s really about finding “the tools that enable the right behavior,” Levien says. This goes beyond the use of adaptive software; it is about making thought visible.
The panel also mentions the importance of staff having a basic set of tools to use. We want to give students a choice of tools to make their learning visible. However, we can also overwhelm them with options. A school doesn’t need to have 50 different apps to create. Focus on creative tools like AdobeExpress allows students to do many things, like create a website, portfolio, or video to express their learning, all in one program.
By focusing on a few evergreen tools that can be used across multiple subjects with multiple outcomes rather than giving students many consumer tools, personalized learning focuses on tools that invite creativity. Schools owe it to students to empower them to be producers rather than consumers, a skill set that will serve them well in their future. This is one of the goals of any technology used in a personalized environment: to encourage individual student growth in authentic skills.