Connecting the Dots to Personalized Learning

Years ago, I used to talk about “educational technology”.  At the time, the adjective - educational – was significant in that it implied that the technology I was speaking of had been vested with a particular mission and purpose within the context of schools.  Educational technology was technology that was specifically intended to inspire and facilitate learning.

As it turned out, the addition of an adjective wasn’t enough to truly make it an effective tool for learning.  Over time, this became abundantly clear when school districts struggled to document the learning benefits of the Smartboards, computers, hand-held devices, etc. that they had purchased. Consistent with the historic literature documenting educational technology best practice, our belief at Sun Associates, has always been that educational technology is most effectively implemented when matched with specific learning objectives and teaching strategies. Promoting this position has resulted in our work related to envisioning, strategizing, and implementing various ways to encourage teachers (and very importantly, administrators) to weave technology meaningfully into the teaching and learning environment. 

In more recent years the terms digital and blended learning have emerged to overtake the use of “educational technology” and “technology integration”. With the emphasis on learning, these terms have the effect of moving the student to the forefront of our thinking about digital technology in a way that purposefully connects the dots between technology and pedagogy. Digital- and blended-learning, in fact, have at their core the personalization of learning inherent in student-centered pedagogy.

As I speak to district leaders about their aspirations for their districts, personalized learning often emerges as a broad and general priority to address the varied needs of their student population.  Such a differentiated approach to creating “future-ready” (or “college and career ready”) students resonates with an increasing number of district administrators concerned particularly with preparing high need and at-risk students for success. Likewise, those districts searching for ways to promote 21st century skills have identified personalized learning as a strategy for implementing student-centered, inquiry-based activities as well as meaningful performance-based assessments.

Where does this take us as evaluators and assessors of digital learning’s impact on students and teachers? If we understand that personalized learning is the pedagogical objective of digital and blended learning, then it follows that in an evaluation context our goal is to determine the extent to which a district has constructed and operationalized a student-centered, personalized learning environment.  Digital learning, as a means to that end, will be assessed as just one element of a learning environment that focuses on the degree to which the current and future needs of its users are being met.  Such an assessment not only encompasses what teachers are doing to empower personalized learning, but examines how effectively district vision and policies translate into implementation of initiatives such as digital and blended learning, STEM programs, etc. Connecting the dots between educational technology, digital learning and personalized learning offers new avenues for exploring the degree to which instructional systems can support the needs of all learners.