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Personalizing Learning – The Important Role of Technology

It wasn’t that long ago I began my high school teaching career. Fairly early on, I worked with one teacher who epitomized the mindset of many secondary school colleagues.

“My job is to present the material in an interesting and meaningful way,” he would say. “It is the student’s job to learn that material.”

Implicit in his statement was the idea that it was the student’s role to adjust to the various styles employed by different teachers. Whether the teacher featured a lecture format or a hands-on approach was immaterial – the assumption was that students were the ones who needed to be flexible, especially if they were thinking that college was to be part of their future.

In addition, any failure on the student’s part to master the material was not the responsibility of the teacher. If students were unable to learn the required subject matter, the consensus would be that the student simply had not worked hard enough.

At that time (and still the dominant theme in many classrooms today), students moved along as a group, each doing the same set of assignments, each expected to master the exact same set of learning objectives by a date set forth in the syllabus. Adjusting any parameter for the group was deemed as watering down expectations while differentiating for a specific learner was perceived as showing favoritism.

New Viewpoint – Personalizing Learning

iStock_000009648196XSmallClearly, that mindset has changed. With learning styles now a part of the educational landscape today’s teacher is expected to adjust to the varied preferences of students so as to maximize the learning potential of each individual in the classroom.

Such an approach has been characterized by the global term: personalizing the learning experience. The concept is considered as critical to the next generation of teachers as it is for the next generation of students.

Personalizing learning involves differentiating the curricula, including expectations and timelines, and utilizing various instructional approaches so as to best meet the needs of each individual. Essentially, students should be able to do varying assignments and have the freedom to work at a pace that is conducive to their abilities and skill set.

Not too surprisingly, individual elements of a personalized learning environment are well known to current educators. The challenge is not so much what those elements consist of but how to piece the elements together to form a cohesive strategy.

Most importantly, personalizing learning for the current generation of learners demands specific technologies. Educators need to understand that children are growing up in a media-rich environment.

Schools must deliver a product that engages students and generates within them the desire to learn. Today’s curricula must involve liberal uses of technology whenever it is relevant to the task at hand.

But technology also plays a more important role in the personalization process. Ultimately it is the conduit for teachers to move to a learning approach that features materials developed for each individual student.

Learning Platforms

One of the critical elements to a cohesive strategy involves the concept of a learning platform, a phrase featured prominently in Europe. It is a strong descriptor or label, one that befits the concept of personalizing or individualizing the learning environment for every student.

Such a learning platform involves a number of fundamental principles. First teachers must have a clear understanding of the learning needs of each student. Those needs must be documented from year to year and access to such information must be readily available.

In addition to understanding each student’s individual needs, teachers must monitor and assess student progress intently if they are to help each student achieve to his or her full potential. To facilitate this monitoring and assessment process, both the student and the teacher must have access to a wide variety of technological tools.

iStock_000011294728XSmallLearning paths must then be created that match the aptitude and learning styles of every individual. Once that path has been constructed, the teacher must make a commitment to supporting each student’s progress along that path.

Such a step also requires access to a wide variety of technological tools. In Europe, students in each and every school are expected to have access to a safe and secure personal online learning space. In fact, that commitment has been in place since March of 2008.

The European personal online learning space consists of the following elements:

  • anytime/anywhere access to the learning resources created and stored by or for the student;
  • communication tools (email, messaging, etc.) to enable dialogue between a student’s peers and mentors;
  • management tools to monitor and assess progress.

It is important to realize that only with such a space can true personalization be put into action. First, students can work at their own pace at all times and do so in the environment that allows them the greatest level of productivity.

Second, teachers can work more closely with each individual and work towards improving engagement by tailoring the material to each student’s ability and interest. Here again, technology is critical, allowing teachers to organize and store what can be an unwieldy body of work.

Third, technology ensures the maximizing of time and resources. Teachers can coordinate and share resources with other educators at other schools. Perhaps even more importantly for teachers, technology ultimately streamlines administrative tasks significantly.

It’s All About Technology

Personalizing the learning experience has shifted the aforementioned philosophy that still tends to exist within most high schools. While that fundamental shift has some specific parameters, there is clearly no one method for implementation.

iStock_000006762221XSmallOne of the first elements is increased communication among educators themselves as well as with their individual students. Teachers must understand that ongoing contact between themselves, their students and the parents of their students, is a must for personalizing the learning experience of every child.

That means increased use of email; teachers must be willing to accept and subsequently respond to emails from students or parents when students arrive home without a clear indication of that day’s assignment. Better yet, it means posting that assignment online for students and parents to access directly.

It also means that teachers must begin posting syllabi, study guides, assignments, and learning tasks in a conspicuous area that is available to other teachers as well. Of course such an area must first be created. But more than any other attribute, personalization requires an end to the days of teachers going inside a classroom and closing their door to the outside world.

In the new arena, educators must figuratively open their doors, adopting a mindset that materials can and should be shared among colleagues as well as educators in other school systems (in addition to parents and students). Teaching has too often been an isolating activity – personalized learning requires that teachers become collaborative.

No one educator could possibly create unique learning materials for every single student, day after day, year after year. Not if the teacher is to handle his or her traditional workload. There simply is not enough time in the day to realistically do so. But if a variety of materials are available in an organized online repository, teachers can begin the process of personalizing the learning experience for each student.

iStock_000007517489XSmallAs we noted, in an ideal world, these materials would be web-based so that even parents could access whatever has been posted. Perhaps the greatest shift in mindset for 21st century education involves making materials available to parents and other adults who can then assist the student with any and all tasks.

Building Capacity

An expectation that all teachers are ready for such steps is destined for failure. Therefore, the first step to personalizing the learning environment for each student is to assess one’s current tech capabilities. While such a step should originate with school administration, there is nothing to prevent individual teachers from taking this step themselves.

But school administration must work diligently to build the technological confidence and capabilities of the staff in their respective buildings. In addition, leadership must foster collaboration and hold staff accountable for personalizing the learning environment.

But everywhere one turns, whether it is the instructional approach or the management of the materials to be used, technology is at the heart of the 21st century classroom. And when it comes to the notion of personalizing the learning environment for students, it is today’s technology that makes such an individualized environment possible.

For more on technology and the specific concept of learning platforms, visit BECTA.


1 Mathman6293 { 04.07.10 at 11:39 am }

This post evoked so many thoughts in my head.

This year my school was assigned a new principal after four years with a great leader. In the past 4 years, we were able to build a new computer lab, purchase document cams and purchase a number of graphing calculators. We were heading in the right direction.

Enter the new guy and and extremely tight budget and much of our technological improvements have stopped. No money.

As it turns out our new principal is going to be dynamic but it took 6 months to figure us out. Not only is time a factor for us but as always so is funding. And with bigger class sizes looming it is difficult to imagine how we as classroom teachers will be able to individualize instruction. It is a frustrating climate.

2 crudbasher { 04.07.10 at 2:28 pm }

Great article! You are exactly right about how you can’t personalize a learning experience by yourself. Collaboration on education is an idea that is slowing making it’s way into the learning community.

3 Mr. B { 04.19.10 at 11:17 am }

Technology is a key component in the future success of our students, we must incorporate technology into teaching higher-order thinking skills which will prepare our students to be today’s learners and tomorrow’s leaders.

This is one way to help do your part:

4 Michael Rowe { 06.18.10 at 7:16 am }

Your suggestion that teachers increase communication with students via email, and that assignments, etc. are posted online, is concerning, especially in a post with such a strong emphasis on using technology.

Both email and posting assignments online has little to do with personal learning, not when there are so many other tools that are more social and collaborative.

What you’ve suggested is merely that teachers and students move their offline habits into an online space and there’s nothing fundamentally different about that.

5 Patrick Gordon { 06.29.10 at 9:32 pm }

Definitely a thought provoking post! I do agree with Michael Rowe, however, that some of what is being suggested hear does not represent a significant change in the manner in which students learn from teachers, but rather an alteration in the medium in which that interaction takes place.

The section detailing online learning platforms, however, is looking in the right direction. I agree that there needs to be more effective communication between students, teachers, families, and peers. One aspect that I think has been left out by many articles on this subject is the importance of the peer-to-peer relationship in these online learning platforms, and how that relationship can be more effectively utilized for educational gains.

I’m actually currently working on developing such a platform that is designed to create a gaming environment to teach teenagers the concepts of financial literacy. If you’re interested, definitely check out my website.

Always like seeing articles like this. A step in the right direction!

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