3 Things Every Digital Learning Tool Must Have to Support Personalized Learning

Think about some of your most memorable, relevant, and positive learning experiences. What were they like? How would you describe your level of involvement and input during those experiences? How did they impact your thinking, develop your skillsets, and change your worldview? Reflecting on these experiences can serve as a valuable reminder of what great teaching and learning should be like in our primary and secondary schools. So, let’s take it to the next level by pondering this, “how can learning experiences like the ones you recalled become the norm and not the outlier in K-12 education?”

I venture to guess that a common feature to the learning you remembered had some level of personalization involved. Meaning, you had input regarding the what, how, and application of learning. In other words, you were able to build a personalized educational pathway. Embracing student pathways both in specific classes and during their schooling is a daunting, but necessary, reorientation of education. The obvious shift is that student choice is in integral part of the experience. Additional challenges to using personalized pathways involves the vision and craft of teaching.

Such a transformation requires a robust professional learning plan to support teachers. Specifically, teachers would have to be well versed in learning theory and pedagogy, be able to build inspiring relationships, have growth mindset for themselves and students, and be comfortable not being the holder of all content knowledge. Finally, the use of technology as a tool to facilitate student learning will be an essential part of a classroom dedicated to personalized pathways.

In order for teachers to start using a pathways approach to teaching and learning, it’s imperative that the technology tools they use impact the purpose, process, and products of a lesson, so they can personalize education for their students. Here are the elements edtech developers need to ensure are built-in to their products:

  • Personalizing Purpose: Students explore content through broad, compelling questions to investigate a problem, concept, or application related to a course. To this end, digital tools…
    • provide access to a variety of online resources which both broaden the context of the unit and makes content more accessible to students through varying reading levels, media, etc.
    • connect students with current and contemporary information and involve a variety of perspectives.
    • allows students to develop a pathway of content sources including experts, other students, and electronic collections.
  • Personalizing Process: The instructional strategies teachers use for their students can be modified to meet students’ learning needs. Technology creates an instructional pathway by:
    • designing self-paced plans not related to seat time. Rather, benchmarks and steps can be used as a scaffold and plan for learning which is easy to modify.
    • using a platform that allows for easier and more frequent check in and instant feedback
    • archiving instructional strategies through either teacher directed instruction or using a collaborative tool for interaction. In turn, these can be revisited and are not a one-time offering for students.
  • Personalizing Product: Students are given options on how to demonstrate their understanding and who will engage with their work. Digital tools…
    • provide variety in assessment type. For example National History Day offers these choices for student products – research paper, website creation, live performance, video documentary, and exhibit.
    • expand the context of who will see and engage with student work.
    • support the creation of digital portfolios which can then be shared and modified overtime and for different audiences. Portfolios archive student work and growth overtime.

I love the sentiment “whomever is doing the work is doing the learning.” It reminds us that students learn best when experiences are meaningful. But learning can be a messy, complex, and fluid process. Therefore, it is important to remember the insight of educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky regarding expectations and classroom culture on learning, “children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” 

Purposeful use of technology supports personalized pathways to learning. When supporting this transformation it is important to meet teachers where they are and nurture teacher leaders as models for colleagues. Doing so will create powerful learning experiences for students that they will never forget. 


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About the Author

Craig Perrier is the High School Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, VA. He is also an online adjunct professor of history and education for Northeastern University and Adjunct Professor of Education, at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. He has taught in public schools throughout the U.S. as well as in Brazil for six years. Craig maintains the blog The Global, History Educator and is the creator of the free online teacher resource U.S. History in a Global Context. You can follow him on twitter @CraigPerrier.

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