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As More Schools Look to Personalized Learning, Teaching May Be About to Change

As personalized learning becomes more popular, will educators still lead the classroom - or will software companies?

East Pennsboro Middle School math teacher Lisa Brown works with a small group of students. (Photo: John Whitehead)

Only a couple of years ago, classes at East Pennsboro Area Middle School in Enola, Pa., had between 25 and 35 students, all sitting behind rows of desks dutifully facing forward. Then, chances were high that their classroom instruction was focused upon lectures, plus a few hands-on activities. Lessons were usually developed around books and worksheets.

For Rachael Moola, Dana Schreiber and Lisa Brown, teaching began to feel redundant. They were doing the same thing six times a day. The routine became more entrenched as their class sizes grew and access to potentially transformative technology became more elusive.

“Teachers were all feeling a little frustrated. We were craving a change,” Moola recalls. “Our school just wasn’t structured to provide the kind of higher-order thinking our students needed.”

Today, instead of simply memorizing facts for a test, students dive deeper into subjects that interest them. Textbooks and worksheets no longer dominate, as educators employ multiple instructional models. Smaller class sizes allow for more time for one-on-one instruction.

Best of all, the lifeless classroom setups are gone, and learning spaces have been reconfigured with moveable furniture and walls so that when classroom subjects overlap, teachers can combine lessons. Students rotate through these areas, which fosters a more collaborative learning space.

“They can’t hide in the classrooms anymore. Every kid is involved in every lesson, answering every question,” Moola says.

“As more people read about it, personalized learning has become more popular, but as a term, it’s become more and more melted down and confusing” - Elliot Soloway, professor of computer science, University of Michigan.

These are just some of the highlights of the school’s new blended learning/personalized learning model. And East Pennsboro teachers took a leadership role in design and implementation. Although the plan is still being rolled out, math teacher Lisa Brown says the impact on students and staff has been “rejuvenating.”

Roughly 600 miles southwest of Enola, in Louisville, Ky., personalized learning has also materialized in Paul Barnwell’s Language Arts class at Fern Creek High School. For two years, Barnwell and his colleagues have shared their classrooms with ReadingPlus, an online reading support curriculum that provides specific targeted instruction based on individual student ability.

His students begin each class period by logging onto the program. They remain there for 20 minutes while Barnwell makes himself available for any questions or troubleshooting. But usually he finds himself—at least during this part of the class—feeling slightly marginalized. On one hand, ReadingPlus seems to be working—some struggling students are catching up to grade level. Still, Barnwell can’t shake the one nagging question that is likely on the minds of many educators minds: What comes next?

“I think about that a lot,” Barnwell says. "The danger as I see it is deprofessionaling the art of teaching because you’re being asked to do not as much. There may be less motivation for teachers to improve and design their own curriculum if we’re turning it over to some software company,” he adds.

The contrast between Barnwell’s uneasiness and the enthusiasm of the educators at Pennsboro is illustrative of the different forms and models personalized learning can take. It has become one of those terms that can terrify and inspire educators because it means different things to different people in different contexts.

“As more people read about it, personalized learning has become more popular,” explains Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan. “But as a term, it’s become more and more melted down and confusing.”

The general idea behind personalized learning is that the fixed time, place, and curriculum of traditional classrooms is ill-suited to meet the demands of a diverse student population that has a wide range of learning needs. Many schools have leveraged sophisticated software programs that allow students to set their own pace and delve more deeply into specific interests, often in a blended learning setting, or — as the cliche goes— one that “meets them where they are.”

According to the National Education Technology Plan issued in 2010 by the U.S Department of Education, personalized learning puts “students at the center and empowers them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions.”

Greater student agency over their learning inevitably means at least a redefined role for the teacher. This is what has many educators like Paul Barnwell feeling apprehensive—not because they cling to the status quo or fear innovation, but out of serious concern about what this potential sea change in education could mean for students.

“It’s a struggle to get all students up to grade level so everyone’s open to trying whatever help might reach that goal,” Barnwell says. “But can we still keep enough time in the classroom for human interaction, to spark a passion, get them interested in a certain author? Maybe we can do both. I hope so.”

carpe diem school The Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School in Yuma, AZ, was initially praised for raising test scores. Within a few years, however, enrollments began to shrink and the school's management was forced to rethink this isolating, tech-centric approach to learning. Photo: Nick Pandolfo/The Hechinger Report)

Reason For Alarm

Although personalized learning initiatives can be found primarily in charter schools, the pace of expansion into public schools is picking up a speed.

It got a big assist in 2015 when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan (a former teacher) announced that they would donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares (roughly $45 billion) to help “advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation.” Their areas of focus, they said, would be community-building, curing disease, connecting people ... and personalized learning.

Facebook’s involvement in developing personalized learning platforms raises a host of serious questions, including privacy concerns over student data. More broadly, Zuckerberg’s public role in championing the trend highlights the troublesome influence corporate entities continue to have over the direction of the national education debate. While Zuckerberg insists his interest is purely philanthropic, widespread adoption of personalized learning models will mean big profits for private companies.

It’s a struggle to get all students up to grade level so everyone’s open to trying whatever help might reach that goal. But can we still keep enough time in the classroom for human interaction, to spark a passion, get them interested in a certain author?” - Paul Barnwell, Language Arts teacher, Fern Creek High School, Louisville

Still, in an interview with Education Week shortly after the announcement, Zuckerberg sounded a note of caution.

"We don’t know for certain that it’s going to work," he said. "All we can really hope to do is provide an initial boost and try to show that this could work as a model, and hopefully it gets its own tailwind that carries it towards mainstream adoption.”

Zuckerberg’s hedging can perhaps be attributed to the fact that his previous foray into philanthropy and education policy—a $100 million donation to help turn around Newark’s struggling schools—was not judged a success. And Facebook's involvement in developing data-driven personalized learning platforms raises a host of serious questions, including privacy concerns over student data. Also, the body of research into personalized learning’s impact on learning is pretty thin. This alarms many educators who see the potential for bad, or at least unproven, practices to increase.

Elliot Soloway points to the Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School, a charter school in Yuma, Az. Although the school initially received praise for improved test scores, Soloway is disturbed by Carpe Diem’s version of blended learning. Specifically, when students were online they sat in cubicles, plugged into headphones, seemingly cut off — for at least a good chunk of the school day—from their peers and the few teachers hired by the school. The school’s web site even bragged that “with dozens of cubicles filling a large, open room, Carpe Diem resembles a corporate office more than a traditional school.”

“Test scores go up because you drill the heck out of the kids,” says Soloway. “But what’s ‘personal’ about this model?  Students shouldn’t be cut off for up to three-quarters of the school day. Carpe Diem hires very few teachers and they have very little instructional role. Students need teachers to help them figure things out. That’s what learning is all about, not being spoon-fed by a computer,” Soloway says.

Carpe Diem’s tech-centric model fell apart in 2017, however, as low enrollment hampered expansion into other states. The school’s management discovered that - guess what? - students didn’t like learning in cubicles and have been forced to rethink their approach.

Todd Rose of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and author of “The End of Average: How We Succeed in A World That Values Sameness,” argues that a well-designed and executed personalized learning model can enhance teacher-student interaction. Students learning in isolation, interacting with only a computer, should never be the result, Rose says.

“It’s about freeing up more time for the high-value relationships between the teacher and the student and [beween] that student with other students,” Rose explains. “You can best facilitate those deep social interactions by having a system that understands each person as an individual and is responsive to that.”

‘Every Day Can Be Different If We Want it to Be’

In 2014, Rachael Moola, Lisa Brown and Dana Schreiber, were selected by the administration to help lead East Pennsboro Middle School’s pursuit of a grant to design and implement a new personalized learning program. The educators jumped at the chance.

“All of us felt that we could do better. We wanted to modernize the school and make what we were doing more authentic for our kids,” says Moola.

Erin Minnick, president of the East Pennsboro Education Association, says the central involvement of educators at every stage of the process was critical. “The final grant was shared with the association before being submitted, which allowed the association to ensure that teaching and educators would be a part of the equation.”

The team, led by East Pennsboro Middle School principal Michael Sim, won the $400,000 grant to build a blended learning program that would be piloted in the middle school and then scaled up over two years. Over nine months, they researched various blended learning models to find out what might work in their school and district. They also visited a dozen schools that had successfully made this transition. “We didn’t want to mimic one particular model,” says Schreiber, but the goal was to develop one that combined the best features of technology and online learning with teacher expertise.

East Pennsboro personalized learning East Pennsboro Middle School English teacher, Rachael Moola works with students in the personalized learning lab. "“Teachers were all feeling a little frustrated. We were craving a change,” Moola says. (Photo: John Whitehead)

The result was a hybrid blended learning program built around a flex-rotation model. An individual student receives a portion of their instruction online and then is rotated through small groups, either to work independently or to collaborate with fellow students. Later, the student and the teacher meet face-to-face to address and analyze the student’s struggles or successes.

“With this model, every student is answering a minimum of ten questions on every single topic,” says Schreiber. “I know within minutes that a student doesn’t understand a particular concept. In years past, I really had no idea what their level of knowledge was until I gave them a test a couple of weeks down the line.”

Project-based learning is integrated from the outset — not offered up as “dessert,” Moola says. As a result, students continually build skills and take ownership of their learning.

Greater student ownership, says Lisa Brown, isn’t making her feel like a passive presence in her classroom. East Pennsboro began piloting its blended learning model during the 2015-16 school year,.  Since then, Brown says, she has called upon her areas of expertise even more—just in a different way.

“We’re not standing in front of the whole class presenting a lesson,” Brown says. “We’re working with each student, helping them with what they need at that moment, helping them develop skills in a way that keeps them engaged. Every day can be different If we want it to be, and I’m seeing these kids learning and succeeding. I see sparks every day. That’s what being a teacher is all about.”

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