Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Personalized Learning at the iNACOL conference

So an interesting thing happened this morning, as I began fielding some questions about our new Student Personalized Learning System from attendees at a conference... that I wasn't even at.  Come to find out that a colleague of ours (and current AEA PD Online Governing Board member), Bev Berns is presenting at the conference today.

There are probably many questions about the system, so here is the skinny:

What is a Personalized Learning System?

It is a term we use to describe our online learning system for students.  It is different than a traditional learning management system (LMS), such as Moodle.  We also support a statewide Moodle system in Iowa, but there are needs students have that make this system necessary.

What do you define as "Personalized Learning"?

Good question... we actually don't set a definition.  One problem we have in Iowa is over-definition.  Groups throughout the state have latched on to different terms like "personalized learning", "blended learning", "flipped learning", "competency-based education", "standards-based education", "credit/component recovery", "career pathways"...

Did I mention that we have quite a few terms?

The problem is that none of these terms are defined to the point where there is calibrated agreement among its adherents.  This creates an enormous efficiency and scalability issue, as without common agreement and common systems-approaches, there is nothing for a teacher to tap into.  Essentially, a teacher either must recreate the wheel or purchase an expensive program.

What does this system provide?  How is it different than an LMS like Moodle?

LMSs traditionally are clunky and teacher/curriculum focused.  That is, they are engineered around a class, where part of the work is to pre-determine the end outcomes, and part is to set up preset collaborative experiences (like group work or discussion forums).  While those have their place, they are essentially the opposite of what most of the buzzword terms from above are all about.

A personalized learning system is built around individual opportunities.  First, we break down learning into modules, including self-paced lessons, assessments, performance tasks, communities of practice, and attendable events.  By creating a common catalog of these items, aligning them with common standards, we allow districts, teachers, and even students to select appropriate items from the catalog to structure into a personalized learning opportunity.  That opportunity can take on any purpose from the buzzword terms above.

Above all, the system must maintain a simple and intuitive user interface.  

How does this change education?

The two big changes is that with a common catalog, where teachers can easily add their own items, there is a robust number of potential items that can be taken and used for whatever the purpose.  That is the one part of personalized learning that everyone seems to agree on, is the number of choices for students is critical.

The second big change is breaking down school structure from the traditional Carnegie unit into smaller modular pieces, which in turn can be built back up into learning opportunities of diverse sizes.  Having modular pieces available, a school could put together a series of learning modules (including lessons, assessments, tasks) to be completed over multiple years.  The work of the student is put together into a portfolio, emphasizing that learning is an ongoing process, not something solely relegated to a semester.

So, you have it all built and ready to go, then?

Well, not quite.  We actually have been building a personalized learning system for teachers for about a decade now, and it has undergone many different twists and turns.  This summer marked the point in time where we have split the systems into two (one for teachers and one for students), which will allow us to customize their capabilities to each audience.

So, our current student system actually has most of the features from our Teacher Personalized Learning System.  We are in the process of customizing those layers this year (we are considering this to be a piloting year for us) in addition to building that robust catalog with some statewide content in the 21st century skills areas of the Iowa Core.  Next year we look to add Core area content to the catalog and add the social aspects of the system.

What are the biggest issues regarding this system currently?

Much like any other efforts, funding is a huge issue.  During our pilot phase, the system is available at no extra cost to Iowa schools (we use our other revenue mechanisms to cover the cost of this development, but that cannot happen forever).  This is partially on design; if costs are getting in the way of schools transforming the way they structure learning, then it is most unfortunate.

But, there is a tendency within education to need a "polished system" before embracing it, much like districts investing huge money into credit recovery programs or curricular textbooks.  Simply put, while our plans are to grow the system's capabilities as practitioners grown in their understanding of what personalized learning looks like in schools, there are many districts that want a final solution right now.

To help meet the demands for functionality and curriculum, our efforts this year are to seek out partnerships.  We are off to a great start with many local partners, including Character Counts in Iowa and the Institute for Excellence & Ethics.  Other state agencies (whether local districts or statewide entities) that would like to partner are encouraged to contact us to find out more.  This can be to discuss either financial partnerships for access to the system, or in-kind contributions to development.

Other links of interest:
One-Page Handout (PDF)
Sneak Peek at System Functions
• Sample Press from Launch of System KIMT | Des Moines Register

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