Personalized Learning Technology for Education


What Is Personalized Learning Technology?

Educators have been developing instructional models for personalized learning for over four decades. Today, personalized learning is referred to by many names, including individualized instruction, student-centered learning, and adaptive learning (Glossary of Educational Reform, 2015). In the Educause publication “7 Things You Should Read About Personalized Learning, personalized learning is defined as a “highly focused learning path for each student” (Educause, 2015). The idea behind personalized learning is to tailor the education to meet the different needs of each student. “It lets students choose where, what, how, and when they learn, thus providing flexibility to ensure mastery of the educational content” (Abel, 2016). “Personalized learning is not a product you can buy” (Feldstein, 2016) but rather a strategy that good teachers can implement.

Historically, personalization in education has been labor intensive. However today personalized learning can be used with adaptive technology platforms to automate and scale the individualization process to tailor the learning experience for each student. With the increase in the use of data and predictive analytics, educators now have tools to more easily customize and personalize learning experiences in ways that are not possible using traditional printed materials alone. The use of online and personalized curriculum delivery has the potential to improve student outcomes while reshaping how teachers interact with educational material to advance student learning. It allows educators to dramatically extend their content choices and present content in multiple ways. It also enhances students’ ability to demonstrate understanding and provide feedback to the teacher.

This chapter will focus on the availability and usability of personalized learning technology and its potential impact on students, especially those with disabilities.

Why Is Personalized Learning Technology Important?

Personalized learning is a hot topic among foundations, school districts, and government and philanthropic agencies, who invest large sums of money into myriad digital devices, learning platforms, and software. Personalized learning solutions have flooded the market with over 600 platforms (Learn.skillsoft.com, 2017) that promise to increase test scores and provide equal access to curriculum for students who have historically failed in traditional school programs. In 2015, it is estimated that U.S. educational technology companies received $3.6 billion in angel and venture capital funding specifically designated for learning technology (Ambient Insight, 2016).

On the policy side, we have seen a shift away from “student access to curriculum” and toward “degree completion” (LeBlanc, 2016). Higher education institutions are required to track and measure program completion and gainful employment to secure base funding, and grants are often tied to student outcomes. This means that students who have traditionally fallen through the cracks and failed must have support and flexibility to improve their opportunities beyond graduation. Both the (2008) and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 support “flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways the students are engaged” (Center for Online Learning, 2016, p90).

These technologies are being implemented in the classroom today and students’ success in school relies on being able to successfully use them. Summit Learning estimates that more than 113 schools are already using their tools for personalized learning, and they are seeing results. “Last year, 74% of Summit students met or exceeded Common Core standards for English Language Arts on California’s state tests, compared to 49% of students statewide, and 51% of Summit students met or exceeded the math standards, compared to 37% statewide” (Berdik, 2017).

Now, like never before, the availability of materials through digital learning environments is empowering educators to dramatically extend their content choices, bringing engaging presentations of the world’s knowledge and a wide range of proven curricular approaches directly into their own classrooms. This allows them to address a key need that special educators have known for years – that learners and their needs vary. Children with disabilities exemplify those varying needs. These students need additional accommodations to access the general curriculum. Indeed, in order to learn the same material as their peers, students with disabilities often need subject matter presented through different methods or via modifications (Digital Promise, 2017).


Who is Working on This?

Many content and platform providers provide personalized and adaptive experiences to address individual learner needs and preferences for the general student population. Although the list is long, here are a few examples of leaders in the field of personalized learning (LiveTiles, 2016):

  • Acrobatiq
    • tool to help educators create personalized online coursework
  • Cerego
    • tool that utilizes a student’s memory retention to produce an optimal learner schedule
  • CK-12 Foundation
    • creates and distributes freely available, web-based, customizable “FlexBooks” that are used now in more than 38,000 schools nationwide
  • EdReady
    • free platform that evaluates and adapts material presented to a learner based on student mastery of standards-based concepts.
    • used by middle and high schools in 39 states
  • Empower
    • content creation, management, and assessment reporting tool that supports proficiency-based learning models
  • Gooru
    • tool that lets educators curate information from multimedia online sources and textbooks for student consumption
    • provides students with real-time data to help track performance against targeted goals
  • Highlight
    • platform that helps administrators track what and how technology is being implemented in the classroom
  • K-12 education platform
    • helps teachers target ways to intervene when students do not understand concepts
    • helps students take ownership of their learning by progressing through material at their own pace
  • Khan Academy
    • platform that guides learners through an online lessons using state-of-the-art, adaptive technology that identifies strengths and learning gaps
  • Knewton
    • analytic platform that gives real-time feedback to students about their learning style and presents content tailored for an individual
  • Summit Learning
    • platform that provides personalized learning curriculum and content from Open Educational Resources providers
    • free online tools for teachers and schools to help students track their own learning goals and is tied to the Common Core curriculum

These are just a few examples of companies that offer tools for personalized learning. A growing number of openly licensed digital resources and distribution platforms like them are creating unprecedented opportunities for personalization.


How Is Personalized Learning Technology Applied in Education?

Today’s teachers are faced with very diverse learners. General education classrooms are a mix of gifted, English language, cultural and socioeconomic diverse, and disabled learners, all with different strengths and weakness making teaching both exciting and complex (Voltz et al., 2010). “Most students are either ahead of or behind the average learning rate” (Feldstein, 2016). Teachers have to find the right path to support all of their students, but personalization of content delivery can be challenging. As a result, many teachers “teach to the middle,” leaving behind those who need more support and underserving those who need more advanced content. However, through the use of personalized learning platforms, teachers are able to gather information about how their students learn and create individual profiles that identify and address their students’ learning styles and personal interests.

In 2016, Educause documented a case where personalized learning was implemented at a community college in New Jersey. Students at Essex Community College (ECC) in Newark are required to take a developmental math class in order to graduate. Most of the people who take this course do not pass, and those who do pass generally have difficulty passing more advanced math courses at the school. Students came to the school with either too little mathematical knowledge and got lost in the class or too much knowledge and got bored and dropped out. Many of the students did not possess solid study skills, and the teachers did not have the time to reinforce these skills in the classroom.

The teaching team decided that in order to support the students, they would “flip” the instruction and provide more time for the students to work at their own pace using an adaptive learning program instead of listening to lectures. Students who needed more support could benefit from the tutoring resources available in the platform and those who exceled could speed through the content. Teachers were able to access real-time student progress by utilizing the analytical tools and provide support for the students who needed additional help. Students had the power to learn at their own pace and get help in the areas that they needed. Since the technology became the tutor, the teachers and students could spend quality time setting, reviewing, and refining personal goals to increase their learning.

Today’s students learn differently than students in the past (Delic, 2012). They share information using digital and networked devices, which makes them active, not passive learners (Dabbagh and Kitsantas, 2012). As a result, educators are in a unique position to incorporate mainstream technology with educational content to increase the opportunity for meaningful learning opportunities. Technology-rich activities have been linked to higher student engagement compared to low-tech traditional educational activities. Studies show that students are interested in using personal devices for learning (West, 2013). According to a study on personalized learning and personalized devices, students reported that they want their education to adapt to their needs and want to be involved in how and when they learn (Evans, 2017). Personalized learning and personalized learning platforms provide educators with the ability to harness this technology into the curriculum to make learning motivating for their students (West, 2013).


Challenges and Opportunities for Students with Disabilities

Special education teachers have been manually adapting and personalizing instruction for their students for decades, but now technological advances are reshaping the educational landscape. These learning solutions create opportunities for even more customization and personalization of learning experiences in ways that traditional, printed educational materials could not.

The appropriate technology can be an equalizer for the 14% of elementary and secondary students in the U.S. with a documented disability (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). This technology has the potential to increase access to digital materials that were previously inaccessible, and it can support educators in differentiating curriculum to meet the needs of all learners (Zorigian & Job, 2013).


Challenges

Some teachers report that they lack sufficient understanding and knowledge around personalizing learning. Without knowledge of how to use the technology, teachers may miss key opportunities to provide engaging, motivational, and personalized learning experiences for their students (Digital Promise, 2016).

In her post for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Lisa Hansel, 2016, pointed out that personalized learning advocates “tend to underestimate the breadth of knowledge necessary for true comprehension, thereby leaving students with “a narrow and haphazard base of knowledge”. To that, Thomas Arnett, a researcher focused on innovative learning models, responded, “When I use the term “personalized learning,” I do not picture a form of education that sets aside core knowledge and rigorous content standards for the sake of allowing students to pursue personal interests. Catering to students’ interests and passions can be a powerful means for engaging and motivating students” (Arnett, 2006). This exchange illustrates the lack of consensus about how to interpret what personalized learning means, as well as a lack of shared understanding about how to implement the strategies (Glossary of Educational Reform, 2015).

Despite the growing number of digital technologies supporting personalization, some platforms and products are not accessible to students with disabilities. No one platform can serve all students perfectly, and when there are problems, they tend to cluster around three categories of issues: availability of appropriate content, mechanisms to allow control and exchange of content, and the display of content. To expand a little further on these three topics:

  • Lack of availability of appropriate content: A teacher may want to present material with images accompanied by simplified text descriptions to a student with an intellectual disability, but is not able to locate materials that meet this need. Teachers may also lack best practices for creating content themselves in the absence of existing material.
  • Lack of mechanisms to control content: Tools sometimes do not let the user adapt content to address special needs without modifying the existing code, which is most often beyond the capabilities of the average student or teacher (Laabidi et al., 2014). Without flexible course builders, teachers cannot customize content for special needs. In addition, without accessible assessment/feedback mechanisms, a student with a physical disability might have difficulty entering answers to tests.
  • Lack of ability to control the display of the content: Some platforms do not allow the user to adjust displays via preference settings – e.g., a student with a language processing disability is not able to indicate a preference for slower reading speed or color. In addition, the lack of basic assistive output settings – i.e., text-to-speech output — limits the ability of the student to successfully use the platform.

Opportunities

Students with disabilities often need subject matter presented through different methods or via modifications (Digital Promise, 2017); therefore, it is imperative that these technological advances benefit all students and learning styles. The good news is that the advent of digital materials has brought with it opportunities for students with a range of disabilities to more readily access content that is adapted to accommodate their specific needs. Thanks to innovative platform and content creators, the “challenge” categories mentioned above also represent opportunities.

  • Availability of appropriate content – currently there are many organizations that are providing content that could be tailored to the needs of individual learners. Some examples include:
    • OER Commons, created by ISKME (the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education), is a platform that allows educators to create personalized materials for students, as well as links to an existing repository of OER (Open Educational Resources) arranged by subject area, target grade level, and material type (e.g., simulations, diagrams/ illustrations, activity/lab, etc.). OER Commons’ growing collection provides educators with over 50,000 high-quality resources and a network for open collaboration. The content is spread across primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels.
    • EdReady is an open, adaptive platform that provides standards-aligned content for middle and high school students using informal online assessments to automatically identify key concepts that an individual learner needs to reinforce. When conceptual gaps are identified, students are presented with an opportunity to supplement their comprehension using alternative materials such as videos from Khan Academy or interactive simulations from PhET. In addition to existing collaborations with key content partners, EdReady also supplies a responsive, web-based toolbar that provides access to basic settings such as color contrast.
    • OpenStax provides a suite of personalized learning tools and resources including OpenStax CNX, an OER textbook collection used in over 2,500 courses globally, as well as OpenStax Concept Coach and OpenStax Tutor (both in beta), adaptive courseware activated by over 400 institutional partners. OpenStax focuses primarily on advanced level high school and postsecondary materials. Recent releases of their textbooks include key accessibility features such as text descriptions for images and mathematical content. Meanwhile, their adaptive courseware uses proven cognitive science principles to present learners with periodic questions aimed at reinforcing their understanding of the content.
    • Bookshare online library is a pioneer in providing books to qualified students in formats that work best for their abilities. Today, Bookshare provides accessible educational materials to over 450,000 students with print disabilities in the United States. Bookshare has a library of over 565,000 educational titles that are available as accessible digital books that can be downloaded and used with a range of assistive technologies, such as refreshable Braille displays, for students who are blind, or apps that will read the text out loud while highlighting the words visually (karaoke-style) for students with dyslexia.
    • Newsela, an instructional content platform encourages reading by providing options for selecting the reading level that simplifies the vocabulary based on comprehension and understanding of the material.
  • Mechanisms to control and exchange content – While instructors still need to play an active role in teaching and the exchange of ideas, personalized learning platforms can open up opportunities for both teachers and students to engage in the content. For instance:
    • Macmillan Learning offers a variety of personalized learning products to engage both educators and learners.
    • Sapling Learning allows teachers to create personalized ways to control how homework is assigned and monitor student progress online.
    • LaunchPad, helps students virtually read, study, and practice skills while independently increasing comprehension. These tools help both the teacher and the student feel more prepared and less overwhelmed thus leading to a greater chance of success (Rai, 2016).
  • Display of the Content – Assuming that the digital content is “born accessible,” the use of digital accessibility tools can help students with disabilities access information in the way that works best for them. Some examples include:
    • Capti Voice, a free digital reading tool can provide alternate views of web pages as well as read paper documents that are uploaded through the camera feature. Students are able to increase the font size or access alternative text, and the tool can be used on a variety of mainstream web-based platforms.
    • EasyReader, a reading tool for Android or iOS devices that provides voicing of alternative text, font re-sizing, color adjustment, and text highlighting.
    • BrailleNote Apex, a tactile reading tool that converts digital text to refreshable braille, including math.

Story from the Field

In 2011, researchers sought to understand how personalizing computer-based games would impact the ability to learn for two students (ages nine and six) with moderate to intensive cognitive impairments. Prior to the study, both students received individualized instruction in the classroom as well as less than 40 minutes in the general education setting. Although they were in a K-2 special day class with five other students, the use of the computer for study occurred during times when other students were engaged in individualized and independent instruction.

Baseline testing consisted of the use of flashcards and gestures to respond to questions. They were rated successful if they gave an answer within five seconds and not successful if over five seconds. Based on the results of the baseline, the teacher identified three goals for each student. Both students independently used the computer to address their three goals using software that was tailored specifically for their needs. For example, the teacher created individualized computer games by recording her voice to provide feedback and prompts as well as praise for correct answers. When the students made the correct choice, they would be given written and verbal praise as well as a fun sound; however, when they made an incorrect response, they would only be given the written and oral feedback to “try again.”

Both students showed significant growth in acquisition and maintenance of targeted skills over the course of 12-14 weeks. Although there were some limitations to this study (e.g., sample size), findings indicate that personalized computer games give students with moderate to intensive disabilities the opportunity to increase their independent functioning (Everhart et al., 2011).


Conclusions / Actions

While the use of technology can be a game changer for many students, it is important to remember that personalization of learning opportunities must consist of a combination and balance of the right technology or platform with a skilled educator and thoughtful course design. This includes effective course instruction, timely feedback, and individualized support for unique learning styles.


Educators:

  1. Evaluate and confirm that the technology software or platform will meet the needs of each learner.
  2. Familiarize yourself with all of the features that your students might need for personalization.
  3. Communicate with your students often to make sure that they are maximizing their educational potential.

Parents:

  1. Find out what accommodations and/or technology solutions are available to meet the needs of your child.
  2. Meet with the teachers and/or administrators prior to the start of school or your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting with suggestions for technology that could help personalize the educational experience for your child.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the technology that is being used in the classroom and see if you can also access it at home.

Students:

  1. Master your personalized learning environment and learn how to modify it to meet your needs.
  2. Communicate with your teacher about the things that are or are not working with your personalized learning environment.
  3. Not all technologies you encounter in school will be available to you at home, but if possible, try to have the same technology at home as you have at school so that it is easier to practice outside of the classroom.

References

Ideas that work.The DIAGRAM Center is a Benetech initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (Cooperative Agreement #H327B100001). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U.S. Department of Education.

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