At AltSchool, there are no textbooks and no whole-class lessons that teach one subject to every pupil in the same way. Instead children use digital tablets to support their real-world and immersive lessons, and document their learning via online personalized learning “playlists” they have co-developed with teachers and parents. Meanwhile, teachers use wallmounted cameras to capture students’ important learning moments and further their own professional development.
Launched in 2013 by former Google executive Max Ventilla, AltSchool is an expanding network of private “microschools” for primary and middle school students in the United States. AltSchool emphasizes student-driven, project-based learning and entrepreneurship.
It’s just one of a growing number of educational institutions worldwide that have adopted online platforms that empower students to pursue their own learning goals. Popular platforms include US-based learning management system Schoology, Canada-based D2L’s competency-focused Brightspace and US-based math software provider DreamBox.
Even Facebook has designed a platform for Summit Public Schools in California and Washington state to create classroom experiences focused on their students’ future ambitions.
“Personalized learning is a core tenet of the next-generation, adaptive-learning strategies that are redefining education by allowing students to focus on their interests,” said Sarah Luchs, K-12 (Kindergarten through 12th grade) program officer at Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), an initiative of the Colorado based nonprofit EDUCAUSE. “NGLC grants have already helped around 100 US schools deploy digital tools to give students the learning autonomy to fulfill their personal aspirations.”
EDUCATION FOR THE DIGITAL AGE
North America doesn’t have the monopoly on personalized learning, however. In 2012, entrepreneur Maurice de Hond founded Onderwijs voor een Nieuwe Tijd (Education for a New Era, or O4NT) and the Steve JobsSchools network in the Netherlands after discovering that his young daughter would be taught in the same way his older son was during the 1980s.
“Why should young children, many of whom can competently use smart devices at an early age, be taught for 1980s life rather than to succeed in the future digital world?” de Hond said. “Instead of continuing to fill every child with the same information ‘just in case’ they need it, our teachers help students develop the ability to find and apply solutions to learning problems as they encounter them.”
The Steve JobsSchools first opened in August 2013 and now total 20 locations across the Netherlands. Children who attend the schools complete 45% of their learning through adaptive online programs on their digital tablets; the other 55% of learning occurs during 30-minute workshops. To ensure students meet the Dutch government’s academic standards, teachers meet with children and their parents every six weeks to refine each child’s individual learning development plan.
“PERSONALIZED LEARNING IS A CORE TENET OF THE NEXT-GENERATION, ADAPTIVE-LEARNING STRATEGIES THAT ARE REDEFINING EDUCATION BY ALLOWING STUDENTS TO FOCUS ON THEIR INTERESTS.”SARAH LUCHS
K-12 PROGRAM OFFICER, NEXT GENERATION LEARNING CHALLENGES
“Unlike in most schools, where parents only have twice-yearly discussions about their child’s progress with teachers, our system gives them a central role in their child’s education,” de Hond said. The approach is catching on: in 2016, 04NT will open schools in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; suburban Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa; and São Paulo, Brazil. “Many parents thank me for changing their child’s life. We’ve even got children whose misdiagnosed attention deficit disorders have been ‘cured’ because they’re in a more stimulating environment.”
A year after adopting personalized learning, the De Ontplooiing Steve JobsSchool in Amsterdam has recorded growth in students’ math and reading skills. However, director Jaap Pasmans said, the benefits extend far beyond academic achievement.
“Our children are happier and more motivated now that they’re focused on their interests,” Pasmans said. “I’d recommend this teaching model to everybody, because it gives you more time to coach each individual so they have the tools they need to learn core subjects by exploring their passions.”
Secondary school network Big Picture Education Australia (BPEA) has found that self-directed students are better prepared for higher education and employment. BPEA was established in 2006, joining a global network that began with the founding of Big Picture Learning in the US by Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky in 1996. At BPEA, advisers and parents help students to develop learning plans that tie their personal interests to Australia’s national curriculum and to the workplace. This requires students to participate in internships with personal mentors in the community twice a week for four years and present self-directed “Projects for Learning” four times per year.
“Many young Australians do not complete school, so we wanted a learning model that would encourage them to pursue passions but still be academically rigorous to allow them to pass national exams,” said Viv White, co-founder and co-managing director of BPEA, which has 40 schools across Australia. “Not only do the projects cover 80% of the subjects included in the national curriculum (the remaining 20% is covered in traditional classes), but the internships enable students to see how the skills they develop in school can be applied in their careers. This really motivates them to improve.”
Suspension rates have dropped, attendance and self-discipline have improved and students are making measurable progress, White said.
Student testimonies on BPEA’s website also provide testament to the program’s widespread success. In Launceston, Tasmania, Shauna Carlon’s internship with celebrated Australian pastry chef Adriano Zumbo led her to study at one of Australia’s top hospitality, tourism and food institutes. Eighteen months after arriving in Tasmania, Nepalese student Sameer Pandey helped to develop a lighting system for a new factory during an engineering internship with multispecialist infrastructure consultancy Pitt & Sherry. Meanwhile 15-year-old Abby McLeod’s interest in TV crime drama “NCIS” prompted her to work with the police department and criminal law professors at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales
“I can map a lot of the stuff I’ve done back to the curriculum – there’s English because I’m doing a lot of writing, science because it’s based on biology, and I’ll be doing bloodspatter pattern analysis, which uses trigonometry and math, and the history of forensic science,” McLeod said in an interview for BPEA’s website. “Mum’s a lot happier to see that I’m learning so much. I’ve learned more in one term than I have in a year at other schools because when you really enjoy what you’re learning, it’s so much easier to come to school and work.”
SIGNS OF SUCCESS
Several reports have indicated that personalized and blended education systems based on modern technology platforms have both quantitative and qualitative benefits.
The Bill & Melinda Gates’ Foundation (BMGF) and RAND’s November 2014 report “Early Progress: Interim Report Personalized Learning,” indicated that students in 23 public charter schools across the US that received funding from the BMGF to implement personalized learning over a two-year period generally did better on a computerized reading and math assessment than similar students in comparable schools without personalized learning tools. Similarly, a study from California’s Clayton Christensen Institute – a nonprofit think tank dedicated to promoting disruptive innovation in education – found that personalized learning helped the graduation rate in Utah’s Washington County School District improve from 80% in 2012 to 88% in 2014. Meanwhile, US-based information services firm Hanover Research found that the personalized learning classrooms in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District in Wisconsin “demonstrated almost two full years of growth in one academic year.”
Benjamin Riley, founder of Texas-based Deans for Impact, isn’t convinced of the benefits of personalized learning. He cautions that many schools mistakenly expect “something magical” to happen simply by replacing textbooks with tablets. Deans for Impact focuses on transforming teacher training, an area its leaders believe can do more to improve student-learning outcomes than can be accomplished by adding technology to the mix.
“Educators worldwide have repeatedly piled resources into ‘innovative’ learning concepts without any evidence that they’ll be successful, and inevitably they fail,” Riley warned. “I’m worried that in 20 years, we’ll ask why we invested in personalized learning tools only to find they weren’t actually that helpful.”
Riley questions whether young students have the motivation to direct their learning, particularly in subjects they find difficult or that they dislike.
“Just as a tennis player needs a coach to identify and correct common mistakes in their technique, students need a teacher to jump in when they’re struggling or challenge them when they’re bored,” he explained. “I watched pupils at schools in both New York and New Zealand give elaborate multimedia presentations, but they couldn’t answer my basic questions about the topics they’d covered. I’ve no doubt these students acquired beneficial skills, but they simply learned how to make a presentation. Education should focus on skilled teachers imparting knowledge so that it can be recalled easily; using fancy technology to make learning ‘cool’ isn’t necessarily the best way to do this.”
“WHY SHOULD YOUNG CHILDREN, MANY OF WHOM CAN COMPETENTLY USE SMART DEVICES AT AN EARLY AGE, BE TAUGHT FOR 1980S LIFE RATHER THAN TO SUCCEED IN THE FUTURE DIGITAL WORLD?”MAURICE DE HON
FOUNDER OF ONDERWIJS VOOR EEN NIEUWE TIJD AND THE STEVE JOBSSCHOOLS NETWORK IN THE NETHERLANDS
NGLC’s Luchs, however, argues that when implemented and monitored correctly, personalized learning technologies can empower children to use their natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation to acquire and retain knowledge.
“Typically, teachers who enable pupils to choose when, what and how to learn see much better levels of student engagement,” Luchs said. “Effective personalized education systems should offer customized, self-paced learning opportunities that are responsive to individual students’ needs, interests and progress.”
Jim Flanagan, chief learning services officer at global nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), believes that students need both: personalized learning systems are only effective when supported by human interaction with skilled teachers.
“If students are to remain motivated, technology must be applied in a highly adaptive way that’s balanced with human interaction,” he said. “For example, a student might use Khan Academy [an online provider of free, educational YouTube videos] to increase math skills, but they may need one-to-one support from a teacher when they hit a challenging topic.”
BUILDING A PERSONALIZED FUTURE
Personalized learning advocates like ITSE’s Flanagan anticipate that the trend of students directing their own educations will continue to grow.
“Students expect schools to provide the same customized services they experience in their personal lives and, in the future, they’ll have more opportunities to demonstrate competency outside of traditional education models,” he said. “More parents and teachers will see beyond educating children in the archaic ways they learned, and instead consider how they’d like to be educated for today’s world.”
BPEA’s White agrees: “More schools will see that students need to focus on their interests in a family-like environment where the skills they’re developing are valued by peers, teachers and the wider community. Personalized education models like Big Picture really will give our young people the power and motivation to co-create the future.” ◆
See what a day in a life looks like at an Altschool: http://bit.ly/AltSchoolDay