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Innovation in EDU Conference: A Chicago Retrospective

October 30, 2019

Technology revolutionized the classroom and made learning more accessible. Education technology takes on many forms, including adaptive learning programs, one of the quickest growing types.

These technology-based education systems analyze a student’s performance in real time and modifies the presentation based on individual performance. No matter how powerful this technology is, the question remains: Is an adaptive learning program enough to personalize a student’s educational experience, or should more be done?

After attending EdTechTeacher’s Innovation in EDU conference at Chicago’s Bennett Day School, that question turned in my brain more than I anticipated. EdTechTeacher aims to support educators and enrich students’ experiences through technology. They make emerging and innovative technology accessible to schools; the organization is almost exclusively run by current or former educators. This intimate two-day event, with several dozen attendees, explored different innovative trends in education including: project-based learning, design thinking, and the strand I focused on, personalized learning. Here are my top takeaways from the conference.

Personalized learning software must go further than adaptive learning software

At this event I had the pleasure of meeting Tom Driscoll, EdTechTeacher instructor and director of digital learning at Bristol Warren Regional School District. He also helps facilitate the personalized learning strand of EdTechTeacher. During our conversation, it became apparent that it’s impossible for districts and educators to rely on a couple adaptive learning solutions, however, technology can improve how a classroom runs.  

Tools like a tablet or a laptop can radically change how classrooms run. Adaptive learning software, or software that uses AI technology and machine learning to alter lessons to fit every student’s pace, offer a scalable solution for teachers that want to personalize their students’ education. These programs learn from the answers that students enter, allowing the program to customize what information each student receives, and when they receive it. This software frees teachers from time-consuming decisions, allowing them time to create a customized curriculum. Steps teachers take towards a customized curriculum truly help personalize learning.  

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Technology in the classroom is not all the same

This conference left attendees with a clear idea of how technology can help innovate in classrooms. With separate Tinkering and Engineering Science (TES) labs for younger and older students, devices for students to work on, and a rapidly developing facility in conjunction with small class sizes, it was a whirlwind to think of and see all the possibilities. Of course, not every classroom can reach that level. The first day of the 2019 Chicago Teachers Union strike fell on the second day of Innovation in EDU, the reality of how different classrooms can be, even across one city, was starkly noted. 

What can using technology in the average classroom look like? On top of adaptive learning software such as DreamBox and Knewton alta, there are endless possibilities. A classroom management tool helps connect all devices in a classroom so a teacher can choose what they want students to view. Interactive presentation tools such as Socrative or Peardeck insert questions into presentations to track student understanding in real time; this modality allows teachers to see where they need to spend more time in a lesson. Teachers can leverage study tools to create things like virtual flashcards, or students can utilize these programs independently. 

Real-time feedback is imperative for teachers to know when to move on and what to focus on. Tools like Wakelet and Flipgrid allow students to give that feedback typed out and posted or via a short video. 

Technology allows teachers to virtually expand the classroom. Teachers can use Google Arts & Culture to bring museums and landmarks from around the world to students’ devices. Online exhibits like this offer teachers fleshed-out timelines with photos and videos. Teachers can even search by historical event and find resources to support whatever lesson they may be planning.

Tip:

Think about the needs of your classroom. Not every tool will work for every class, this is a game of picking and choosing what works best for you!

Technology cannot personalize everything

At the conference, lots of time was devoted to talking about teaching strategies that help teachers personalize their classrooms. Technology cannot do all the work of personalized learning, furthermore, studies have shown how biased algorithms can be. Teachers must bridge the gaps between technology and the end result; there are some solid strategies for personalized learning that can help. They all start with some core values of personalized learning. Tom Driscoll shared this photo at the conference that breaks down those values.

three core values of personalized learning are that they are: learned centered, learner driven, and learner connected.Courtesy of Bristol Warren School District Personalized Learning for the Whole Child

Let’s consider Bennett Day School’s curriculum. It revolves around project-based learning, a strategy where students learn by actively engaging in projects. These are often connected to real situations that are personal to students. Specifics about what projects are done change with each new group of students. The students drive the specifics of the project (or projects, depending on the breakdown of the classroom) which often connects back to the learner or their communities in some capacity.

Blended learning involves much of what has been talked about already. Leveraging online tools along with shifting the breakdown of work between individual and group work allows students to learn their way. A competency-based curriculum involves students showing mastery of a lesson before moving on, meaning they move through courses at their own pace. Both of these strategies rely on learners driving their own education.

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Designing courses where students drive their own learning, or designing for student agency, puts learners in the center of their education. Student agency also gives students a leg up when it comes to real-life skills past school. Teachers have used strategies like setting SMART goals to help students decide exactly what they want to learn in a specific time frame. Teachers’ support through this process sets the foundation for students to use these skills in all walks of life, and keeps them on track with the specific expectations of the class. 

Students gaining valuable life skills in the classroom brings us directly to another strategy: Social-emotional learning, defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” SEL is a great example that shows the “tools” for learning don’t only include software, and connect to the learner personally. The ability to set goals and manage emotions are important life skills that already support personalized learning

If a teacher or district decides to dive into personalized learning, it’s important to remember who is at the center of this: the student. Classrooms are slowly shifting from teacher-led to learning-centered environments.

Personalized learning is the way forward

The way we teach is changing, and it’s hard to keep up. Technology has helped students take a more active role in their education. Whether you’ve been a teacher for 40 years or just started running your first classroom, there are many solid ways to personalize your students’ experiences and assure they get the most out of your classroom. 

Ways anyone can personalize their classroom

    • Combine lessons & assessments
      Interactive presentation tools in the classroom allow teachers to create lessons that go further than standard power point presentations. Utilizing different activities such as drawing, collaborative bulletin boards, and short assessments in the presentation help keep track of what students are understanding and what they need help on.
    • Work with students, don’t lecture at them
      Including students and giving them agency can empower students to step up, especially if they are given freedom to learn in a way that works for them. Creating solid and achievable goals with students sets clear expectations and includes the student in their own education. 
    • Give students ALL the tools they need to succeed
      This goes beyond providing a tablet or laptop for each student in class. While physical technology for every student offers more options, that won’t make or break a personalized learning experience. Giving people, no matter what age, the tools to regulate emotions and follow through with goals is just as important as making sure they have access to the best technology.

EdTechTeacher.org, an innovation for education

One thing is for sure, exploring ideas surrounding personalized learning amongst colleagues from across the country was a treat. After reading so many of his thoughts (seriously, check them out) Tom Driscoll made the idea of personalized learning exciting and engaging. His competence, and that of the entire EdTechTeacher team, shown through for these two days. I witnessed and contributed to several animated discussions about the use of AR/VR in classrooms, about how projects can revolutionize the way students learn, and how designing the right classroom could unlock student potential even further. 

However you decide to do it, personalized learning is inevitably where education is headed. There are too many variables in classrooms to not have options and strategies that further students’ success. Whether you decide to incorporate one or several tools into your curriculum, students will thrive with more learning options.

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