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Teachers’ Influence on the Edtech Purchasing Process: 5 Features to Look for in a Personalized Learning Solution

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 -- Winnie O'Leary

Personalized learning is one buzzword that every educator is hearing plenty about lately. But, what does it really entail? Here’s the Department of Education’s definition:

Personalization refers to instruction that is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary.

Sure, that makes sense. And in the very real world of the classroom it sounds great, but how can we make this happen? There is often a gap between what we as teachers want to do and what we actually can do with 30 students to manage, curriculum responsibilities to fulfill, and state tests just around the corner. Creating a truly personalized learning environment adds significant demands to teachers’ already lengthy to-do lists, and technology is one important component.

Teachers are on the front lines when it comes to using technology for personalized learning, but oftentimes, they’re not the ones holding the purse strings. What’s a savvy classroom educator to do when they’ve found a new solution that will make a difference for students, but don’t quite have the front office on board yet?

We first touched on this complicated but all-too-common situation last week, when we discussed how to use the 5Ws—who, what, where, when, why (and how)—as a starting point to build your case for purchasing new personalized learning technology. This week we want to dig into the features a quality personalized learning solution should include, why they’re meaningful, and how to present them to your administrators.

Amazing teachers just like you are making personalized learning happen. Technology can be a powerful tool in helping you navigate how to personalize learning for each of your students. There have been multiple studies conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that speak to the positive effects of personalized learning and how technology contributes to successful programs. The Gates Foundation found that 31% of teachers across all grades use technology and digital tools as part of their efforts to personalize learning, and that rate is even higher in the lower grades. The value of technology is even greater when teachers are able to choose the solutions they use, which in turn increases the success of personalized learning implementations.

Modern instructional and learning theory supports the shift from rote learning models and uniform lesson planning toward personalized learning approaches that tailor instruction to each unique student’s needs. The ideal outcome is an engaging classroom that benefits both students’ and teachers’ growth. So, what specific features and components of technology effectively support this goal? Here are five things to look for (and point out to your administrators) in the personalized learning solution you’ve found:

1. Universal Screening Tool

A universal screening tool typically is an assessment or data points used to determine whether a student is likely to meet, not meet, or exceed grade-level expectations. These tools help you determine a baseline for your learners, and provide data that can be examined to determine if a change in your overall curriculum and instruction is warranted. Ideally, this component should be a digital piece to keep your student data clean, easy to access, and simple for you to interpret and act on in real-time. If the information gleaned from a universal screener is too cumbersome, the chances of it making a real impact on your classroom instruction declines.

With organized, easy-to-use data from a universal screener to establish a baseline understanding of where each student is in their learning progression, it’s easy for you to take the next step and identify their strengths, needs, interests, and even learning styles. In turn, this helps you determine how to group learners, what kinds of stations or centers will be effective, and what content you want to deliver to get your students where they need to be.

2.  Progress Monitoring

There was a time when it took teachers weeks to administer tests, get them graded, and weed through the results to identify which kids missed which important concepts. Now, with the plethora of technology options, why wait? Effective personalized learning solutions feature progress monitoring tools that help you understand which instructional approaches and interventions are moving the needle, and how students’ knowledge and skills are evolving. Technology can offer a means to administer direct instruction or practice based on the specific set of skills that a student needs extra support in.

As all teachers have experienced, there are days when the lesson just works; every child’s lightbulb is lit, every concept is grasped, and your students seem ready to take on the world. And then the next day comes, and it’s as if the concepts flew right out of students’ brains overnight. Progress monitoring is the foil for this. It offers you concrete insight as to what instruction stuck, where students’ understanding is, what concepts they are solid with, and what could still use some reinforcement or reteaching.

3.  Student Engagement

This one is a bit easier to recognize. Personalized learning focuses on catering to each student’s learning needs, interests, instructional level, and style. And when it’s done with fidelity and precision, personalized learning models create more engaging and vibrant classrooms that foster greater academic achievement and personal growth. An important piece of this is students’ active participation in the design of their own learning. To support this, the tools teachers use need to be flexible enough to capture the varying interests of students while accurately measuring their progress toward mastery and understanding. Technology should offer interactive content, opportunities for students to track their own progress, and engaging elements like gamification to appeal to all learners. Student want to see their progress toward goals, they want to have control over what they will next explore, and they want to pick which sunglasses their avatar will be wearing. This is the engagement piece. As students establish their own choices, progress at their own pace, and share gaming strategies over lunch, their understanding of the content deepens and learning happens.

4.  Project Based Learning Facilitation

One of the truly magical things about technology in the classroom is that it helps students take a more active role in their education. The flexibility and extensive libraries of resources online solutions offer help you create dynamic lesson plans for students working either independently or in groups. Technology provides a means to move away from broad brush strokes and one-size-fits-all approaches. Your lessons no longer need to make assumptions of baseline understanding, but instead can target the known needs of each individual learner. 

However, a tech-rich personalized learning environment is NOT a classroom full of students working alone on a device, heads down and socially isolated; instead, it’s a hub of self-driven collaboration. Incorporating project-based learning is key to making this a reality, but managing this kind of classroom where each child is truly following their own path can become a complex task. This is where technology comes in to help you map projects to skills, and serve as a helpful organizational tool for you, your students, and their parents. Consider personalized learning technology as a framework to work from in order to see where each student is at, identify what they’re working on, and monitor their progress toward goals. It’s a command center where common skills can be identified, resources for collaborative work can be captured, and projects can be initiated.

5.  Time Saving Tools

With the extra demands a personalized learning model adds to a teacher’s plate, effectively using the limited time you have becomes a bigger concern than ever. The right technology helps you free up much-needed minutes in your day. Creative and fun technology-based activities can be implemented to incorporate basic skills practice, and help you quickly administer assessments that otherwise take up time better spent on the art of instruction. Programs can also identify specific weaknesses in a student’s skill set, and offer reporting to help you easily understand progress and spot trends. These solutions can also help you meet the challenge of personalizing instructional pace by allowing you to assignment “Must Do” and “May Do” activities for each student. You can ensure that students always have meaningful activities to work on, even when they’re finishing projects and assignments at different times.

Ultimately, technology should enhance the teaching and learning processes, and facilitate more and deeper moments of direct instruction so that you can truly personalize learning for each of your students. These five features, in whatever exact form they may take, are key elements that make technology meaningful in your classroom. They will help you frame instruction around unique learner needs, check for understanding, adapt instruction accordingly, and in turn, increase your students’ achievement. That’s why these five features are so important to consider as you build your argument to get a new personalized learning solution in your school. Look for them in the solution you have in mind; concrete rationales for improved outcomes will get the attention of any administrator contemplating a technology purchase.

Be sure to check back next week when we share some of our own first-hand stories of purchasing and implementing edtech for personalized learning! In the meantime, start thinking about the curriculum side of your initiative by checking out these 10 Steps to Creating Personalized Learning Plans for Students