Meeting the needs of every student in any given class is a balancing act. Each student learns at his own pace and with his own particular style. An activity that works for one child may leave another lost and confused. A lesson that seems paced too slowly for some students may be too fast for others. The struggle to meet all students at all levels has given rise to a move towards personalized learning where pedagogy, curriculum and day-to-day lessons are tailored to meet the specific needs of individual students and technology often provides the vehicle to get there.
The Guilford County School district in North Carolina is about to roll out a personalized learning initiative with Amplify tablets in 18 of its 24 middle schools. The district is quick to point out this isn’t just a 1:1 initiative. It goes much, much further than that.
“This is not a technology initiative, this is an instructional initiative,” says Jake Henry, executive director of Instructional Technology. “Our bigger goal here is we really want to be able to personalize better for our students. ”
Using Technology to Individualize Instruction
Personalized learning has been a goal for Guilford County for some time now. The district wants to move away from one-size fits all lessons to an environment that truly provides for the needs of each student. With the implementation of the tablets, the classroom will become much more about small group instruction. The devices come pre-loaded with educational content including textbooks, apps and videos providing students with a variety of resources at their fingertips.
“What we are expecting to see is a lot less of the teacher up front and everyone doing the same thing,” says Henry. “Now, I can send students a resource that I found online or I can pre-load something on the device and have it ready for a group of students that may need extra remediation in a certain area.”
Students don’t have to work on the same lesson or activity. They can find one that targets their specific weakness or need. A child that has a solid understanding of the material can work on a more advanced activity while a student that is struggling can work on reinforcing the basics. The teacher is free to walk around answering questions and providing additional help as needed. The Amplify solution also includes the ability to quiz students and receive real-time feedback, meaning teachers don’t have to wait to correct a test to know where students are struggling.
“I have all the data right there on my tablet to tell me who answered “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D.” I can regroup students if I need to based on that,” says Henry.
Access to real-time data allows the teacher to adjust course right then and there. Rather than move on from a subject only to find out after a quiz a day later the students need more time, the teacher can go back and review the topic in class on the same day.
Taking Ownership of Your learning
The underlying theme of personalized learning is ownership. Students now become stewards of their education taking an active role in how they learn and how quickly they progress. Henry describes it as a partnership.
“It’s more of a partnership between teacher and students and owning what it is I have to learn and how I’m going to learn it,” he says.
Guilford County envisions this as a check-in system where students meet with a teacher and talk about what needs to be accomplished for the week or for the month in order for a student to meet their academic goals. Rather than being a passive observer in the education process, students are brought in as participants responsible for carrying out the necessary work to reach whatever goal they have set. Teachers are responsible for guiding the student through academic standards to make sure they are acquiring the appropriate knowledge and skills and can identify their weaknesses.
“You have to know your student. You have to know them as an individual, their interests, their culture, who they are as a person, but you also have to know how they learn,” says Henry.
One reason the district chose the Amplify tablet was that the educational content is embedded directly into the device. Students who don’t have access to Wi-Fi at home are not limited to in-school use.
“There’s videos, there’s books, there’s textbooks, there’s embedded apps that have activities kids can do along with the Common Core with or without Wi-Fi,” says Henry.
Although the teachers at Guilford County are familiar with personalized learning, throwing in the Amplify tablet creates a wrinkle. They need to become familiar with the device and its capabilities in order to effectively integrate them into the classroom.
“Within our district we have 12 positions we call them PLES (personalized learning environment facilitators). Each of those 12 folks is assigned two middle schools in Guilford County. They’re sort of the leaders of this initiative,” says Henry.
The PLES staff was trained by Amplify and in turn created a three-day training program for all of the teachers in the participating middle schools. The first day focused on getting to know the new devices. The second day was content area specific. Teachers met according to what subject they teach and the PLES trainers went over the type of content on the tablet that would be most helpful in specific subject areas. The third day allowed for a little bit of choice.
“We created a kind of menu of activities teachers can choose from based on where they’re at in the spectrum of technology comfort so it’s kind of like a conference,” says Henry. “They show up in the morning and they get a list of all the sessions that are going to be offered and a description of them. Our trainers talked to them about each session, answered any questions then teachers spent the rest of the day choosing from a schedule on which options best meet their needs for what they want to do in their classroom.”
Guilford County funded their personalized learning initiative with Race to the Top funds. They’ve purchased over 21,000 tablets and will soon deploy over 15,000 of the devices to the participating 18 middle schools. The remaining six schools will receive their tablets next year. One of the challenges Guilford County will face is how to determine the ROI of such a hefty investment. They are not likely to see a return that can be calculated in monetary value and the goal of personalized learning may seem a bit abstract for those looking for a quantifiable outcome.
“There’s an evaluation process so there will be an evaluator who looks at a couple of different things,” says Henry. “One is going to be student achievement. Are our kids learning better when they use the tablets? We have goals outlined on our grant to demonstrate that.”
Guilford County has also created a personalized learning index to help them monitor how well teachers are adapting instruction to meet the needs of the students. The district plans to work on the index with the state’s Department of Education to ensure its reliability. Having a way to measure progress will prove key in determining the long-term success of this initiative.
“We’re talking about so much more than just putting a tablet in the kids hands. There’s accountability. Our kids have to learn better and so we have to look at the data and we have to look at what we’re doing in our learning environment to improve instruction,” says Henry.
The district expects to encounter a few bumps once the tablets are officially rolled out at the start of the school year. Henry says his biggest challenge right now is to try to anticipate what those early bumps might be and how best to work through the glitches without sending anyone into a panic. Keeping an open mind and allowing enough time to learn from mistakes and explore is important.
“This is a learning experience as we go,” says Henry. “We don’t have it figured out today and we might not have it figured out for four years, but we’re going to know a lot more about how best to serve our kids with technology at this time next year than we do right now and we’re going to continue to learn and grow. So if you go into it with that attitude you’re going to win.”