Personalized Learning: Implementation & Effects

I work for a competency based school system, so personalized learning is something that I think about everyday at work. A little about our program is that we do not have grade levels (no fourth or fifth grade) nor letter grades (A, B, C, etc,) for grading work. Students are based in levels; a student could be a level 7 in reading and a level 5 math and so on for the other eight content areas. This allows students to work at their own pace and not be held back in certain subjects if they have struggles in other areas. Replacing the traditional letter grades (A, B, C, etc. ) are the scores: Advanced, Proficient, Developing, and Emerging. Students start at emerging and work their way up to proficient or advanced; this is so that students recognize the importance of understanding the material, rather than passing a test to move to the next topic. The article, Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects mentions a lot of those aspects when describing what personalized learning looks like in schools. The major components listed are: learner profiles, personal learning paths, competency-based progression, and flexible learning environments.

To start off, what is personalized learning? According to the article, Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects, personalized learning is…

Personalized learning prioritizes a clear understanding of the needs and goals of each individual student and the tailoring of instruction to address those needs and goals. These needs and goals, and progress toward meeting them, are highly visible and easily accessible to teachers as well as students and their families, are frequently discussed among these parties, and are updated accordingly.

Pane, John F., Elizabeth D. Steiner, Matthew D. Baird, Laura S. Hamilton, and Joseph D. Pane, Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2042.html.

Basically, instead of prioritizing test scores, grades, being on par with their grade level peers, this type of instruction prioritizes students learning to learn and absorbing information in a way that works best for them.

My biggest questions going into the article are:

  • What types of schools are utilizing personalized learning?
  • How do their state scores compare with other schools?
  • How are they implementing personalized learning? (Through a computer program? If so, how long are students on their screens per day?)
  • What are the challenges of personalized learning implementation and in general?

School Types

The reason the first question of what types of schools are utilizing personalized learning is because it typically isn’t your traditional K-12 classroom. Every day I see how personalized learning works in homeschool; and through the district, I see how it works with our site schools where there are smaller class sizes. I’ve always been curious as to how it works in a typical K-12 classroom where you have upwards of 30 students. The article said that more than 75% of the sample were charter schools (page 4). Which means over 30 of the schools were charter schools, leaving less than 10 of the schools being from a district. It also said that the K-8 / elementary schools averaged around 230 students and the middle / high schools averages about 270 students, which could be considered a smaller group. (In my graduating class there were about 270 students, so that is why I think the school could be considered smaller than maybe an average high school).

Overall, this seems to be a good sample size. I would be curious as to how the challenges and performance scores would be different if the district and charter schools were represented equally. Maybe it wouldn’t make a difference?

Testing

We estimated positive treatment effects of approximately 0.09 in mathematics and 0.07 in reading, as shown in Figure 15. Only the mathematics estimate is statistically significant. These effect sizes translate to gains of about 3 percentile points; specifically, a student who would have performed at the median in the comparison group is estimated to have performed 3 percentile points above the median in an NGLC school in both subjects.

Though the reading isn’t a “statistically significant” jump, if they continue to see this trend over the years of going up these 0.07, 0.09 points, this could make a difference down the road.

This next question is coming from a homeschool perspective because in a personalized learning classroom there probably wouldn’t be as much variation between students as they’d have the same instruction from the same teacher. The scores the article is refrencing come from MAP Growth, which is an awesome smart assessment that tailors the questions to the individual. If a kiddo gets a few questions wrong in a row, it’ll lower the challenge and vice versa if a kiddo gets a lot of answers correct, it will up the challenge. How would these scores look on a state assessment like PEAKS. The struggle that you could find with homeschooling is that it is so individualized that students may be learning about the water cycle, but the fourth grade science assessment on PEAKS is testing on ecosystems. If a student is struggling with fractions, they will continue to work on that before moving on, but the PEAKS assessment is assessing ratios and multiplying fractions. It would have been interesting to use a standard assessment to compare, rather than MAP Growth. (Though MAP Growth is the perfect choice for schools who are using a competency based system or personalized learning as it is in line with the philosophy)

Implementation

More recently, options for personalization have increased as personal computing devices have become more affordable and available in schools and developers have created software products that can support individual student learning.

There are a ton of resources for personalized learning. One that was previously mentioned was MAP Growth, a smart assessment to see progress over time. Another tool that is used in homeschool and in traditional schools is ALEKS. ALEKS is an artificially intelligent assessment and learning system for math. It starts with an initial test that finds out where the students are (if they are advanced, need some review, etc.) and places them where they need to be in the course. Throughout the time on ALEKS, students are asked to take knowledge checks that will review materials from previous lessons, as of last week and even when they began the course. This can be frustrating for some students, but it does encourage routine practice of material and understanding the knowledge instead of trying to pass the check. There are some curriculums that are personalized such as K12 and even Power Homeschool and Acellus to a degree.

Though I’ve listed some examples, the article never gives details as to what computer system or if it is all done through the computer.

Challenges

Speaking of the computer programs, those could be considered a big challenge for a portion of students. If not executed well, schools may find themselves in the same place that a school in Wellington, Kansas found themselves:

“I want to just take my Chromebook back and tell them I’m not doing it anymore,” said Kallee Forslund, 16, a 10th grader in Wellington.

“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” said Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, who visited his son’s fourth-grade class. In October, he pulled the 10-year-old out of the school.

Then, students started coming home with headaches and hand cramps. Some said they felt more anxious. One child asked to bring her dad’s hunting earmuffs to class to block out classmates because work was now done largely alone.

These quotes are from the New York Times article, Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion. In an effort to change the narrative of their falling test scores and problems with funding, they turned to the computer system Summit Learning. I think a big reason that some students / families were so hardened to it was that it was a big and new change. Though there was an overwhelming majority that were concerned about it, there were a small, but vocal few who liked the online program and thought they were understanding more material with it. I am not saying that this article is representative of personalized learning or online programs that have personalized learning, I am thinking that this article could be and is a reality for some areas, schools, or students. The New Yorker had an article called The Messy Reality of Personalized Learning, where is talked about Rhode Island schools changing and adding more personalized online learning in the classrooms.

So much has changed so quickly in Rhode Island that it’s difficult to measure whether, and for whom, personalized learning works.

Though I know through working in a performance / competency based school that students are not on the computers all day and that there is a good balance of both online and face to face instruction at the sites and in the homes of homeschoolers. I bet it is overwhelming for schools with such large numbers to personalize for every students that they could fall into a place (such as the Kansas school seemed to find themselves) where they are more facilitating the online program than teaching. The challenges that were listed in the article didn’t touch on these challenges that came to the forefront of my mind. Though I did like that they listed obstacles or challenges for each area that they were writing about such as the pros and cons of learner profiles, personal learning paths, competency based progression, and so on.

They listed obstacles such as:

  • The personalized learning computer system not blending with the online systems already in place for the school.
  • Competency-based grading systems were difficult to explain to stakeholders and did not fit with traditional reporting practices. (I’ve personally experienced this as the aforementioned levels instead of grades and grading system isn’t a typical transcript that you send to a college).
  • The positive student outcome effects found in this study may not occur quickly or in all contexts.
  • Teachers need support and time to plan out the personalized learning for their individual students.

Overall, I think this research asked the right questions, highlighted the pros and cons of each aspect of personalized learning, and showcased results in an easy to understand way. I really loved the visuals this article included, it helped me to better understand the statistics. I love the idea of personalized learning and am grateful to be working in a school where personalized learning is the foundation of our district. This was good to read through to see that it is possible in a lot of schools, and there are schools that are interested in trying it for their students.

References:

Bowles, N. (2019, April 21). Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/21/technology/silicon-valley-kansas-schools.html

Kim, E. (2019, July 10). The Messy Reality of Personalized Learning. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/the-messy-reality-of-personalized-learning

Pane, J., Steiner, E., Baird, M., Hamilton, L., & Pane, J. (2017, July 11). Personalized Learning: Lessons from Implementation. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2042.html

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