“A few educators and schools excel at differentiation, but accounting for the needs of 20-30 primary-aged students (or 150 students in the case of many secondary school teachers) in any type of systematic or sustained way is a Sisyphean task.”
Ask most teachers today if they think that learning should be more personalized for each student, and you’ll get an enthusiastic “yes.” Of course, there is a need to ensure that all students get some of the same bedrock content in each discipline, but we also want them to be free to explore their own interests and follow their own path to get there.
If you ask these same teachers how well they are able to do this in their classroom every day, a nervous tick will develop and they’ll walk away muttering something about standardized tests, class sizes, or the latest state attempt to make teachers “accountable.”
Let’s be clear: most school systems and classrooms today are not conducive to personalized learning technology.
Teachers, every day, face obstacles to creating such an environment. Let’s look at three of those barriers.
Personalized Learning technology has some pretty fuzzy edges. We need to get clear on what we mean when learning is truly personalized. What does that look like in a classroom setting? How about a school system?
It is not enough, for example, to give students a choice of five alternatives to a research paper on a subject relating to a book we read together in class, and call it “personalized learning technology.” (Guilty.)
When everyone in a building or district is on the same page, using the same definition, all the educators can move forward in confidence designing a personalized learning environment.
It is challenging enough for a teacher to keep tabs on the academic progress of all their students when they are doing the same thing at the same time. To even allow a degree of choice in assessments, let alone a flexibility in scheduling, creates even more work for a teacher as they track all that information.
“A few educators and schools excel at differentiation, but accounting for the needs of 20-30 primary-aged students (or 150 students in the case of many secondary school teachers) in any type of systematic or sustained way is a Sisyphean task,” writes Alex Hernandez, in a lively, ongoing debate about the topic.
And while the task of self-assessment can be transferred more into the hands of the learners as they get older, teachers at the middle and high school levels are having to monitor many more learners each day, because of the nature of the secondary school schedule.
Ah, Big Data. Keyword? “Big.”
Standardized testing and various other assessments throughout the school year create a mountain of data that needs to be extracted, parsed, and evaluated. School districts often have “data retreats” to go through this information and make some sense of it.
Data can be an amazing tool for identifying strengths and weakness, gaps in curriculum, and needs of certain populations of students. But it has its limitations, to be sure.
Large scale test score data is only giving a snapshot of the health of a system. It looks at demographics, grade levels, disciplines, curricular areas, etc. None of this sounds like personalization, does it? It is also only a measure of how students can show knowledge on a single type of tool: a multiple-choice test, usually.
And even when there is a “drill down” to individual scores, the assessments that were used often don’t account at all for personal learning styles. As a result, this is very little help to the teacher in the classroom with the diverse group of learners. What is he or she supposed to do with that information?
In order to truly personalize learning for each child, technology is not only useful, it’s necessary.
Applications, devices, and other products are invaluable for the over-burdened teacher to have a trusted system in place. Not only can this technology store data on each student (i.e. a gradebook), but it enables the teacher to lead and monitor the learner through the process.
Such a system must provide the learner a voice in the learning path they take, choices in how they will demonstrate progress, internal and external benchmarks for determining success, and connections with the people and resources to help them achieve that success.
Clearly, this can not be done–at least sanely–without technology.
Author: Cory Peppler
With over twenty years of experience as an educator, Cory Peppler has served as a classroom teacher, library media specialist, and technology integrator. He writes about technology, education, and parenting.
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