How We Think About Personalized Learning at Schoology

Hear from Joel Hames on how we personalize learning at Schoology
Contributed By

Kellie Ady

Director of Instructional Strategy, Schoology

How We Think About Personalized Learning at Schoology

Posted in Schoology | October 16, 2019

As a term, “personalized learning” can be found in everything from ESSA plans to job titles to conference session topics. Deciding upon a definition can be problematic as a result, and it calls to mind something that Michael Horn addressed directly in his article “Finding Personalized Learning and Other EdTech Buzzwords on Gartner Hype Cycle”:

“I increasingly think of “personalizing learning” as a verb. Educators are personalizing learning for their students, or helping their students personalize their own learning. The key question right now shouldn’t be about defining “it,” but instead objectively observing, categorizing, and measuring the different ways educators and students are personalizing learning and understand which approaches are and are not getting the results they seek.”

In a 1:1 conversation with Joel Hames, Schoology’s VP of Product, we asked Joel to share his perspective on personalized learning -- where he sees its challenges and how he thinks about its role in education today. 

Listen to the full interview below.

So Joel, tell me a little bit about your role here at Schoology and what your background is, coming into your current position here.

Joel Hames: I've been with Schoology for almost two years as vice president of product, which is just a fancy way of saying that I get to talk to all of our great education customers, all of our teachers and administrators and students and work with our team internally to figure out how to build the best possible solutions for a student's success. Prior to Schoology, I spent about eight years in a handful of education technology companies building similar products and then even before that had the great opportunity to spend 16 and a half years in three school districts in instructional technology, leadership roles. Often at the district level. Within that context I have the ability to think critically and work with teams of educators on how we adopted products and how we brought them into our schools. The objectives that we had for student success, how we were measuring it and what we were building to ensure that success. And it's a lot of those same principles that we bring and that we have here at Schoology. We're able to take this education community and build structures that ask these critical questions about how to deliver software solutions, education, technology solutions that truly meet the needs of the classroom today.

How do you view the role of personalized learning in education today, especially given that you've got a perspective now working in this space.  And why is it so important to Schoology?

JH: Great question. I think we have to start from the fact that teachers have, that educators have been attempting and trying and often succeeding to personalize learning for their students for hundreds of years. That's part of the heart of a teacher. I think two important shifts have happened in recent decades. Number one, the capability to reach more students and to be more personal. When we say that we mean to understand what the students need and empower them to go achieve that. Those tools have given more teachers the ability to do it more effectively. In addition, research is emerging over the past couple of decades. That indicates to us what is truly successful, helping students learn. We talk about goal setting, we talk about progress monitoring, about literacy across the curriculum. These things that indicate to us what best practices are and how students really learn.

[ “..we don't try to go in and prescribe what personalized learning is. That's not our job. Our job is to listen. And in that listening we try to identify the ways in which we can continue to build successful tools for classrooms.” - Joel Hames, VP of Product at Schoology]

They're coming together with these tools to create an environment where we can truly understand how to make learning personal for every student. And one of the things that we do as we assess that landscape and we work with schools and we work with classrooms and teachers across the country is we don't try to go in and prescribe what personalized learning is. That's not our job. Our job is to listen. And in that listening we try to identify the ways in which we can continue to build successful tools for classrooms. And one of the things we've heard is that there are these four, we call them four pillars, personalized learning that a tool like Schoology and our learning management system or assessment product can help support the two. 

What are the 4 pillars of personalized learning?

Personalized learning is flexible, that it enables teaching and learning to happen anytime, anywhere.

That it's not just sitting in a classroom during third period that it might be at lunch, it might be at home, it might be at, um, an opportunity to continue learning outside of the school day. So it has to be flexible

It should be tailored. Meaning it understands the systems, understand where students are and what they need to do next. And this is done in a construct that supports the teacher efficacy and teacher direction. They understand the curriculum. What we do is we just try to highlight the information and the data that supports better tailoring of the next step for a student effectively. 

It should empower students, this is super important. It gives students agency, it allows them to go in and feel like the thing that they're doing, that next step they're taking is driving their passion, their interests, their capabilities.

And it's supported by a community of teachers and educators and parents and others that are involved in their life. 

And finally, we believe that fourth pillar is mastery based. It's another way of saying it's analytic. We want to be able to understand how we're measuring progress so that we can then highlight that back to students. Essentially it's providing the data that drives these other pillars, so that's what we're doing. And that's how, you know, for me how I apply that previous learning to helping lead the teams here. 

How do you think educators that use our platform every day we'll be able to leverage Schoology to think about how they're personalizing learning?

JH: Yeah, that's, that's fascinating because I do think that the tendency across the country and in our lives is to try to take a big concept and distill it down into a thing that we can do. So the idea of Schoology building a feature for personalized learning is certainly something we've heard in the past. And really what we understand that to mean is how is Schoology overall supporting my need? My desire to help personalize learning for my students. And in that way is exactly what Michael Horn said. It is a verb. 

We are developing features that continue to help teachers meet the needs of every student. Now when you collect those together, you put practices, you put instructional strategies in front of that, you create relationships in the classroom, you create opportunities for collaboration and you engage the community.

Now suddenly you can say, we're personalizing learning. So there's only one component of it has anything to do with where you click in a product. So much more important that we are providing a component of this environment that schools are trying to create, the teachers want to want to put in place for their students. I think that's really where we put our efforts. We don't, we don't think about a roadmap specific to a product in a particular feature. We think holistically about how we represent that out to our schools as a support mechanisms for them. 

What do you think some of the biggest challenges are that schools face today when it comes to personalizing learning? And how do you think Schoology can actually help overcome some of those challenges?

JH: You know, when we talk about modern society and then wax philosophical for just a moment, we, we bemoan a little bit the level of distraction that our young students have, the devices they have, the, the media that enters into their lives. But what that's all representative of is the idea that in order to be, uh, or one of the critical components of being successful is the ability to focus, to know where you're going and how you're going to get there. What I think is a concern as we increase the tooling and the tools available to schools, as companies try to race to become the leaders in personalized learning and they apply their definitions to it. And as this intersects with the common refrain, we hear the concerns that teachers have about the amount of time and money and support they have, the support to help students succeed.

When all that comes together, we actually have an environment in our education space. It's very similar to what we're concerned about for our students. There's a lot of noise. There's a lot that is distracting and a lot that is just diverting resources and attention from the core focus of what a student needs to be successful that day and then the next day and the day after that. So whether that's our curriculum design and the management of that curriculum and the uh, kind of lens through which our teachers and administrators and instructors look to ensure that that's a high quality guaranteed and viable curriculum. It's the assessment programs we've put in place and how to create high quality assessments that help us both first assess for learning. So we're doing something every day for students or of learning so that it's about our program efficacy and evaluation so we can continue to improve.

Like these are the things that we want to be focused on, but there's this risk that, you know, all of these other things are distracting. And so for us it's really critical and important that we continue to create and maintain those strong bonds with educators in the classroom. So that what Schoology is doing is actually providing a space, a, a venue, a forum for any of at least that digital tooling to come through and be supported. So that the, uh, we can kind of cut out some of the noise and teachers came back to the things that really matter, which is to help students and that what we're doing is, is providing just that right amount of information and just the right amount of tools they can contribute to that.

What are you most excited about for the upcoming school year in terms of what we're trying to do at Schoology around personalized learning?

JH: There's a disconnect between so many of systems that provide really valuable information that what we can do with our students. And that disconnect is felt most acutely by teachers who have to go to different systems and different solutions to be able to understand and develop a plan for how they're going to support their students. And what we're doing is we're saying, hey, you know what, uh, you've might might've heard us say things like that. Uh, our LMS, our learning management system in amp or assessment management products better together. And really what that is, is the reflection that we believe that understanding where students are and how they're doing, whether it's through high quality data gathering and grade book practices that you'll see in our district mastery efforts. This, this concept where we're increasing our capability for standards-based grade book, or even more importantly, our investment in high quality assessment practices and programs with amp.

This assessment management product coming in and developing to the point where it's truly able to meet the needs of all schools to understand both what's happening in the classroom for an individual student and what's happening across the entire district. Like all of this is about kind of funneling, uh, a broad variety of systems that are out there that, that caused people to go and I'll have different logins and, and have to pull data and integrate data and all that. And we're suggesting there's a better way to do it where it feels natural and part of the every day classroom experience that our students have and our teachers want like their investment, the investments we're making to advance that, to provide that core, uh, functionality, uh, we think is an important component of allowing teachers the time and the, giving them the information that will then let them do all of these other things that compose or comprise personalized learning.

What are the ways you think that integration between tools (like assessment or LMS), is playing into what happens on that student side and how things are being personalized for them?

JH: Absolutely. The, um, first place I would start is if we go back, if we were a student today, now one of the first things would be getting, may have a lot of students back to school right now is we're going to potentially have a, uh, a page, a webpage, something our teacher put together or a piece of paper. And it's going to have a list of all of the resources I have available and what those, what that represents is me as a student having to navigate to each one of these things independently and then the potential for these systems to be disconnected, that puts a burden on the teachers as the teachers then have to log into each one of these systems separately to understand how their students are doing and hope that the rosters are correct, right? Their class rosters are in that system properly.

So we have a major focus on ensuring that we follow interoperability standards and there's a number of them out there and we can certainly dive deep. But the bottom line is this interoperability standards helps our schools, helps our teachers and helps our students have a consistent, reliable, predictable experience. And to do that across tools in a way that, uh, with specially where we would like to see is to be able to provide Schoology as the window, the doorway to those so that we can, a school and a teacher can decide on the best tools available for a student, know that it can be made available seamlessly in Schoology with accurate data, with information passing back into Schoology so that teachers and students can use that centralized learning environment to drive all of their work. So, you know, that's a major focus for our team here is asking the question every single day. How are we making it simpler for teachers and students to use.


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