Realizing the Possibility of Personalized Learning

By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, May 2015
DanPersonalized learning long has been the educator’s Holy Grail. The goal is to teach one child at a time. To focus on the needs of each child and provide the student with an instructional program designed specifically for him or her. To give the child the time the child needs to reach proficiency at each level of instruction. To not be rushed by the need to cover the curriculum within a specific timeframe and thereby leave countless numbers of children behind who were unable to grasp the subject in the time allotted. To go deeper into subject matter and fully understand concepts, rather than a shallow exposure that provides a weak base for future learning. To allow the students to explore and collaborate with other students and to cultivate within them the joy of learning.
    We all have wanted to fulfill that dream, but the reality of how we currently organize our schools makes personal learning a logistical nightmare. Recent advances in technology are providing encouraging signs that the dream might be achievable soon.
    Making the digital leap has become fashionable but we are concerned that it may have much to do with the technology and not enough with the process of teaching and learning. Technology’s purpose must be to enable educators to provide a fully personalized education program for every child.
Question of Value
These are the concerns that led to the formation of AASA’s Digital Consortium. We have brought together a group of superintendents that has brought digital learning to their schools. They have learned about the pitfalls and are making positive strides with much still to be accomplished. One important principle has all in agreement: It is not about the technology, it is about what the technology does to bring value to student learning.
    Concerns exist over the substantial economic investment required to buy the latest gadgets without a plan as to how they will be used, without provisions for training staff to use them properly and without evaluating the process to ensure that students are indeed learning better as a result.
    Toward the turn of the century, the federal government invested significant funds to drive technology into the schools. Several years later, our policymakers wanted to see proof that the investment had led to marked achievement gains. When the evidence was not apparent, the policymakers moved quickly to remove technology from federal funding.
    Today we again see a significant investment in technology at the national level. Last November, AASA, working with the White House, convened more than 100 superintendents to meet with President Obama. He asked them and thousands of superintendents around the country to sign the Future Ready Schools pledge that promised they would employ technology wisely to achieve greater student learning.
    Also, technology companies are contributing millions to assist schools in the process. The Federal Communications Commission recently doubled the e-Rate cap to more than $4 billion dollars a year to provide school systems throughout the country with the broadband connectivity they will need.
    You can bet that all of these expenditures again will lead our policymakers to want to see, in the not-too-distant future, the return on their investment.
Proper Employment
The lesson from the first technology go-around should be obvious. Technology alone, without teachers properly trained in its use, will not result in expected achievement gains. A laptop for every child may make for an impressive headline, but it could well become an albatross around the neck of the superintendent who is unable to justify the expenditure with greater academic gains.
    The e-Rate money is necessary to ensure all schools have broadband access. The hardware and software contributions certainly will help districts with depleted budgets, but federal dollars earmarked for professional development in the effective use of technology in the classroom are still missing. Because a teacher knows how to turn on and use a computer does not mean the teacher has mastered the effective ways to apply the tool for faster and better learning by students.
    That is where personalized learning comes in. Employing the computer, with the support of the teacher, to become the gateway to exposure to online programs that guide the students, in an interactive environment, through learning activities that are always appropriate to the student’s ability level. Employing the computer to constantly assess where the student is at and to prescribe the next appropriate lesson.
    The technology, along with the requisite redesign of how we currently organize for teaching and learning, can realize the promise of personalized learning.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org. Twitter: @AASADan