Many in the ed-tech field see new technologies as powerful tools to help schools meet the needs of ever-more-diverse student populations. The idea is that digital devices, software, and learning platforms offer a once-unimaginable array of options for tailoring education to each individual student’s academic strengths and weaknesses, interests and motivations, personal preferences, and optimal pace of learning.
In recent years, a group of organizations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and EDUCAUSE have crafted a definition of “personalized learning” that rests on four pillars:
Each student should have a “learner profile” that documents his or her strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and goals;
Each student should pursue an individualized learning path that encourages him or her to set and manage personal academic goals;
Students should follow a “competency-based progression” that focuses on their ability to demonstrate mastery of a topic, rather than seat time; and,
Students’ learning environments should be flexible and structured in ways that support their individual goals.
How does technology support that vision?
In many schools, students are given district-owned computing devices or allowed to bring their own devices from home. The idea is that this allows for “24-7” learning at the time and location of the student’s choosing.
Learning management systems, student information systems, and other software are also used to distribute assignments, manage schedules and communications, and track student progress.
And educational software and applications have grown more “adaptive,” relying on technology and algorithms to determine not only what a student knows, but what his or her learning process is, and even his or her emotional state.
For all the technological progress, though, implementation remains a major challenge. Schools and educators across the country continue to wrestle with the changing role of teachers, how to balance flexible and “personalized” models with the state and federal accountability requirements they still must meet, and the deeper cultural challenge of changing educators’ long-standing habits and routines.
Despite the massive investments that many school systems are making, the evidence that digital personalized learning can improve student outcomes or narrow achievement gaps at scale remains scattered, at best.
Generally, the hope is that putting devices in the hands of students will help with some or all of the following goals:
Allowing teachers and software to deliver more personalized content and lessons to students, while allowing students to learn at their own pace and ability level;
Helping students to become technologically skilled and literate and thus better prepared for modern workplaces;
Empowering students to do more complex and creative work by allowing them to use digital and online applications and tools;
Improving the administration and management of schools and classrooms by making it easier to gather information on what students know and have done;
Improving communications among students, teachers, and parents.