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Guest Blog by Mary Ann Wolf – Digital Learning: Online Learning and Much, Much More

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April 14, 2011 04:44 pm


I recently visited my son Matthew’s class to see their work on famous figures and biographies.  Although this is a seemingly typical area of study for social studies and language arts, I could quickly see that his learning experience was not exactly typical. As I entered the room, each student “tested” their laptop to ensure that the headsets were working.  Rather than listening to each student present in front of the class, students and parents had the chance to visit each student’s “glogster” and view an interactive student presentation on what each child found most important about their famous figure.  As I pushed play on Matthew’s Leonardo daVinci “interactive poster,” I was surprised to hear his letter to Leonardo from the Mona Lisa.  This 30 second snippet and the specific information he had included told me much more about what he learned during his research than the expected “Leonardo daVinci was…” paragraph. More importantly, as we reviewed each “glogster” the variation in presentation style and content demonstrated each student’s interests, talents, and personality.

I could easily see the personalized learning that had occurred because all students had chosen their famous figure; taken different perspectives; had been able to feature graphical design, art, music, or other preferences based on their individual interests in their presentation; and had been able to stretch their learning to their potential.  The creation and sharing of their presentation was also interactive and involved higher-level thinking and communication skills on how to share the most pertinent information in a succinct and useful way.  While I can see Matthew’s engagement and learning benefit from experiences like this, many students across the country do have personalized learning experiences like this every day.

As a parent, educator, and someone involved in the world of education technology, I often find that when I talk to people about technology and digital learning in education, they immediately jump to online courses (even if they have never taken one) or interactive white boards in schools. While these can both be very important parts of how technology can make a difference and engage students when implemented effectively, the potential and reach of technology to personalized learning for students are much broader in terms of tools, application, and everyday use.  In the end, the technology should never be for technology’s sake and must always be for learning.

While not an exhaustive list, the diagram on this page includes some of the areas in which technology or digital learning can have a significant impact on the ability to personalize teaching and learning to meet the needs of each student.  These areas are not discrete and certainly overlap and depend upon one another; but they represent opportunities to meet the needs of and engage students to ensure they are prepared for college and career.  Below I have included details on a few of these areas with links following the brief descriptions to related reports and data:

Instructional Materials:  Digital Content, Open Education Resources (OER), and Software
Technology and digital learning resources have dramatically expanded the instructional materials to which teachers and students have access.  While textbooks may still be the norm in many schools and districts across the country, shifts in policy and practice are leading to a broader view of instructional materials to meet the needs of students. Whether using access to 30 second video clips tied to illustrate slope in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC, integrating gaming into Algebra instruction in Broward County, FL, or using online dissection software in Maryland, students are learning through interactive experiences tied to standards.  Students from Bryan, TX, have access to virtual field trips around the world, historical documents from a small town in Alaska, and opportunities to engage in discussions on engineering with astronauts from Floydada, TX.  Digital content, OER, and the wide range of available software offer extensive possibilities for students with special needs by integrating audio into text, quick look up for definitions, highlighting, and other adaptive strategies to support learning.

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Data and Assessment
Data and assessment are discussed frequently, especially in the past ten years with NCLB; but we are only just beginning to see the potential benefits for students if teachers have access to real-time, pertinent data about individual students.  Formative assessments allow teachers to move from teaching all students the same content in the same way to providing information to quickly understand what students do or do not know in order to drive instruction. Whether using remote access devices (“clickers”) or Poll Anywhere in Rawlins, WY, or online assessments in Denver, CO, teachers can adapt what they teach and even how they teach to ensure that students retain the information.  Companies like Amazon and Google are able to personalize the buying experience for customers based upon extensive data.  Similarly, technology can support the use of data to personalize learning for students including interests, learning style preferences, past success with instructional strategies, and specific areas in need of remediation or enrichment.

Professional Development and Communities of Practice
With budget cuts and time constraints, technology has dramatically expanded opportunities for teachers seeking collaboration with colleagues and learning experiences.  Many teachers engage in professional learning communities or communities of practice to share ideas, discuss challenges, and learn from one another on topics relevant to their day-to-day work.  Others may take an online or blended course or participate in a graduate program.  Teachers throughout Arizona and Alabama share  information and broaden their communities of colleagues with which they can collaborate through online and blended  learning opportunities including access to lesson plans, online courses, and strategies that work for diverse learners.

Instructional Delivery: Blended & Online Learning
Online and blended learning are growing significantly each year in the U.S.  While online learning takes place virtually, blended courses typically included face-to-face and online components.  Students who were previously limited by access to teachers and courses now have access to enrichment opportunities, especially to courses difficult to offer, such as AP, foreign languages including Mandarin and Cantonese, and higher level science and math.  In addition, programs such as Alabama’s ACCESS program offer immediate remediation courses even after failing the first quarter of a course. Credit recovery offerings are becoming more prevalent with online and blended opportunities for students who need a particular course to graduate or others who failed to take or pass a particular class.  Students are more likely to stay in school and graduate with realistic options to make up missed credits.  Over 1.5 million students took online or blended courses in 2010 (Keeping Pace, 2010).  While this benefits all students, rural schools and districts have been able to significantly increase the opportunities for students through online and blended learning.

This is just a glimpse of what is possible for and what is happening with students across the country, and more in-depth case studies (as in the reports listed below) highlight data demonstrating results. Business and other industries have spent decades working to transform their business models and customer experiences through the use of technology.  As in Matthew’s experience with his famous figure, technology can allow teachers to personalize learning for students at any given time.  If states, districts, and schools view the use of technology as integral to all facets of their work and plan systemically to ensure that systems work together, content is linked to assessment, assessment leads to immediate access to data, and data drives instructional strategies and decisions, students will be much more likely to reap the benefits of a personalized learning experience to ensure that they are prepared for college and career.

Reports with Additional Data and Examples

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice

Innovate to Educate:  Education System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning

SETDA National Trends Reports

National Education Technology Plan

Online Learning Imperative: A Solution to Three Looming Crises in Education

Mary Ann Wolf is the chief executive officer of Wolf Ed and has fifteen years of experience in education and education technology. Previously, Ms. Wolf was the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

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