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The Path to Personalized Learning

Posted in Adaptive Learning on November 20, 2014 by

This article originally appeared in Spanish on the Huffington Post

Today, education around the world is undergoing rapid changes. Technological innovations are giving rise not only to new products, but also new ways of thinking about learning.

Teachers and parents around the world are using technology to augment educational experiences for students with unique needs, skills, and educational backgrounds. As access to technology continues to expand, the opportunities to use these tools to enhance students’ experiences in and out of the classroom grow.

Technology will never replace the emotional intelligence, cultural understanding, and empathetic pedagogy that teachers bring to the classroom. But when integrated thoughtfully and combined with high-quality content, teachers can use technology to help guide students toward deeper levels of understanding and foster a love of learning in students at all levels. Parents can take advantage of educational games and apps to supplement children’s learning at home.

Interactive Lessons for a Changing World

New tools enable much more rapid and inexpensive creation of rich interactive content than ever before — including video, text, animations, games, and other media. This engaging digital content can teach and evaluate a student’s understanding of not only traditional course material (multiplication and long division, grammar and vocabulary), but also important twenty-first century skills like critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and creativity. Educational games, for example, require participants to hone collaboration, communication, and problem solving skills as they tackle progressively more complex challenges. Games are built to encourage systemic understanding of information; in the pursuit of goals, players contemplate trade-offs, negotiate with opponents, and discover the relationship between action and feedback. Such skills, and others like them, have direct application in today’s information-based economy. Industries continue to change rapidly; workers need to be ready to learn on the job and solve unexpected challenges.

Personalized Learning for Students

Innovations in technology make it possible to personalize digital courses and textbooks to the needs of each individual student. As students work through digital materials, adaptive learning technology analyzes data to figure out in which exact areas individual students are struggling. An adaptive learning product can recommend the best activity a student should complete to address gaps in knowledge, solidify understanding, or move on toward the next concept. Every student takes his or her own path through course material at his or her own pace. For example, one student might need to review algebraic expressions before moving on to linear equations. Another might be ready to tackle equations, but struggle in particular with graphing. With adaptive learning, each student can review the material that’s most relevant to their particular challenges or gaps in knowledge. Advanced students can move ahead to new concepts rather than become disengaged or bored.

Useful Analytics for Instructors

At the same time, teachers can see actionable information about the performance of individual students or a whole class. These learning analytics — observed or inferred metrics about student performance gleaned from data — can provide teachers with granular information that would be difficult or time-consuming to obtain on their own. Is Sofia prepared for the upcoming quiz? What would Daniel likely score on this week’s exam, if he took it right now? What is Samuel’s overall level of proficiency in a given topic area? This information helps teachers target interventions, foster more productive relationships with pupils, and better guide a whole class toward learning goals.

Today’s teachers face many challenges: large classes, varying student needs, lack of preparation time, and more. Teachers can use personalized learning materials to optimize out-of-class work. Students come to class better prepared. Teachers spend less time reviewing concepts, and more time engaging the class in creative activities — discussions, mock debates, student-led presentations, etc. They can use data about student learning to plan more relevant discussion or lecture topics. They can even use learning analytics to connect students who know different concepts into peer groups, so they can teach each other — or divide the class into groups that each need help on a different topic, to provide focused lessons for each set of students. These creative in-class activities work to further enforce the communication, critical thinking, and collaboration skills students need to succeed in the information age.

Continuous Improvement

Many traditional learning models are based on high-stakes exams and, in some cases, standardized tests used to measure student understanding at the end of a unit, semester, year, or degree. When scores come in, teachers can see which students are struggling. But by that time, it’s often too late to address these misunderstandings. The school year is over, or the class is busy learning new topics. Students may fall further and further behind, as they try to learn more and more complicated topics without adequate prerequisite skills.

Adaptive learning technology can improve learning outcomes in such an environment, helping students make the most of class time by providing the exact instruction and assignments they need to master the material at hand. Adaptive learning can also measure student performance continuously, as an organic part of the learning process. Teachers, parents, and students themselves have visibility into what each student knows or struggles with at any given moment. Teachers and parents can work to ensure that students fully master all the necessary building blocks before moving on to more complex material.

A New Reality

Personalized learning materials are now being used in classrooms around the world. These technological innovations mean that teachers no longer have to teach to the mean, leaving some students fighting to catch up while others are bored by “easy” lessons. Today’s interactive and personalized learning products are encouraging students to tackle new challenges and helping them develop crucial real-world skills. Teachers have new tools at their fingertips to tailor lessons for individuals, which leads to more engaged students. This leads to improved learning outcomes at all levels — from early childhood to K-12 to the university level and beyond.