5 Tips for Personalizing Learning with Technology
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, personalized learning “refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs… learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.” This represents a paradigm shift from the traditional 20th century model, in which classrooms full of students largely worked on the same content at the same time on the same set schedule, doing wonders for the guaranteed delivery of curriculum en masse, but not necessarily one that was attainable or relevant for all learners.
The so-called 21st century model is not only possible due to updated learning theory, teacher training and mindset, and the changing needs of the world economy, but also due to the possibilities unleashed by improvements in educational technology, or edtech. The targeted use of blended instructional strategies has the potential “to leverage each student’s interests for deeper learning.” This is because educational technology today has the power to allow for student choice, voice, and individualized instructional presentation and assessment in ways that just weren’t practical, possible, or even necessary in the past. That is all changing, and edtech tools are critical to the process. Here are a few ways you can use technology to personalize learning for your students.
Focus on the Learning, not the Technology
This is a common drumbeat of mine across multiple posts, because it’s so critical for all of us to remember. The learning is the goal; the technology is the tool. If you want to personalize learning, first create the appropriate learning target. Connie Moss and Susan Brookhart asserted that “the most effective teaching and the most meaningful student learning happen when teachers design the right learning target for today’s lesson and use it along with their students to aim for and assess understanding.” Don’t focus on the laptop, tablet, or phone, nor begin with a specific software tool in mind.
For example, a high school social studies teacher might create objectives and targets centered on the long-term causes of World War I. Often referred to as the “isms” - imperialism, militarism, nationalism, or abbreviated as “M-A-I-N” when including entangling alliances, these concepts become incomprehensible if the focus is placed on presentation software or physical hardware first. The teacher instead places the focus on the meat of what students need to know and then selects the best tools and strategies to achieve those objectives. Better yet, students can select appropriate tools for themselves from a range of options.The learning remains the overarching focus.
Emphasize the Individual, not the Technology
As a corollary to a continual focus on learning goals/objectives, keep the focus on the individual student, not shiny objects. Michael might be a military history buff and super interested in the technological advances of World War I. Why not allow Michael to share a quick “what I already know about…” video or slide deck on the class learning management system (LMS) related to trench warfare, tanks, poison gas, or the machine gun when preparing to tackle the strategies and weaponry that made the Great War so deadly? Shawna might not be well-versed in weaponry, but is very interested about how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand served as the spark that lit the powder keg of Europe. Edtech gives us ways to personalize the “hook” of the lesson and for students to share those takeaways more than ever before.
Flip Content and Make It Interactive
The above examples represent students sharing what they already know in advance of a lesson. Front loading content or “flipping” the traditional classroom was a lot harder before the right technology came along. In addition to student-created content, my example social studies teacher might have already curated lots of content from the web about World War I. Instead of two days of direct instruction and note-taking, the teacher shares a simple, six-minute video with the class summing up the M-A-I-N mnemonic device for remembering the causes of World War I, or shares a custom recording using screen casting software.
In class the next day, students break into small groups or partners to conduct additional online research on a cause of their choice, finding as many examples of that cause as possible. The teacher has them switch groups or partners and jigsaw with their new group or partner. The class then comes back together as a whole to discuss what they have learned.
From flipping content and allowing students to gravitate toward items of interest, to the creation of interactive handouts or web quests, technology makes it possible to engage students more personally than with the traditional textbooks or worksheets of yore.
Technology also makes it possible to assess students before, during, and after the lesson in faster and more productive ways than ever. Video lectures with interactive checkpoints, formative quizzes delivered electronically during lessons, asynchronous online discussions, and exit slips are all ways in which edtech has become more immediate, useful, and personal in recent years.
In our hypothetical example, at the end of the period, students might type up an exit ticket response or create a discussion post via the classroom LMS, demonstrating mastery of the content standard. The teacher would then use that information to drive the next day’s lesson. When these edtech tools are involved, the teacher is provided with the ability to gather and analyze student thinking, often in real time, and more efficiently than in the past.
Create Opportunities for Regular, Tailored Communication
Early in the school year, a teacher in my building was excited to tell me about something new he was trying with regard to short-cycle assessment and student/parent communication: Individualized feedback to families on homework and quizzes presented via our student information system (SIS). In addition to the typical feedback he usually provided for students physically on each assignment, orally in class, or during student conferences, the teacher wanted to take the extra step of reporting out one area of strength and one area of weakness for each student and their family in the comment section of the grade book.
Thus, the teacher turned an area of the grade book that is often empty - or populated with a brief note about a due date, assignment status, or similar housekeeping items - into a treasure trove of valuable feedback on practices to continue or items on which to improve for each individual assignment and assessment. Just think about the potential power of that approach - and it’s so simple to implement! Edtech makes it possible.
Learning is Personal
Social media is rife with memes about the supposed “good old days” in which idols are raised to the one-room schoolhouse and traditional teaching practices are lionized. Rarely do we stop and think - was it really a better education? Would traditional teaching methods be adequate today? I suspect not. The curriculum was indeed guaranteed, but was it viable? Was it personal? All learning is personal, and today’s edtech tools make it much easier to personalize student learning.
Do you have more tips to share for personalizing learning with technology? Tell us on Twitter @Schoology