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Panel examines ed tech, personalized learning

Educators must figure out how to use digital technology to engage and instruct students.

Education policy in the United States should change and adapt to digital technologies that make personalized learning a reality, agreed a number of panelists during an Oct. 6 Brookings Institution discussion.

Greater access to high-quality education is much-needed, said Darrell West, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and the panel moderator, during “Educational Technology: Revolutionizing Personalized Learning and Student Assessment.”

“Technology innovation represents an important part of that overall puzzle,” he said. “Technology has the potential to improve education by personalizing learning, enabling different forms of student assessment, and making class time more flexible.”

Panelists discussed the different ways in which educators and stakeholders can leverage educational technology in the classroom to enhance learning.

Personalized learning

Personalized learning environments are extremely helpful when it comes to addressing each student’s unique learning needs, said Chip Hughes, executive vice president of school services for online-learning provider K12 Inc.

“Students working at their own pace … aren’t bound by the circumstances of all the other students in the room,” Hughes said.

Beyond that, another vital component is “frequent and valid assessments, so that the teacher can understand what the student is mastering, what the student isn’t mastering, and in the latter case, deliver targeted interventions.”

Those interventions can be anything from one-on-one to small-group instruction.

One dilemma educators often face is that of student skill level and assessments–students in the seventh grade will be tested on seventh grade material at the end of the year, but some students might be operating at a third grade level in some areas, such as reading or math. Does it make sense to have a seventh grade student, who works at a third grade level in math, only work on third grade math skills until he or she moves up a level? Or does it make sense to have the student work on seventh grade math that, although the student is missing the foundation to learn those skills, will be present on an end-of-year test?

Hughes said K12 operates a math intervention program to help students develop crucial math skills they might be missing.

“In math, we run into cases where students are multiple years behind. They seem to be struggling in Algebra I, but the real problem is that they didn’t master fractions in elementary school,” he said.

In addition to that student’s regular math course, that student will receive targeted group math instruction for an hour a day at the student’s ability level.

Because instruction is virtual, an older student isn’t embarrassed if he or she is working with much younger students, and young students aren’t intimidated by older students.

“Students who have fallen behind have done so for a number of reasons–family, personal,” Hughes said. “We aren’t only thinking about the academic piece of it, but the non-academic barriers that might be in their way.”

Two key elements in fostering personalized learning are critical thinking and communication skills, said Nina Zolt, CEO and co-founder of ePals.

Students want to use technology in the classroom to collaborate, and they want project-based and authentic experiences in the classroom—and “in an increasingly digital and networked environment, we have flexibility to create what works best,” Zolt said.

Learning environments should be safe, integrated, and provide an opportunity for informal assessments.

“A lot of the districts that are still living in the 19th and 20th centuries view technology as an enemy, and don’t realize that there are safe and secure environments in which kids can collaborate and learn. We need more information and understanding about that,” Zolt said.

Spurring innovation

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, said that expanding ed-tech adoption is a “critical, critical issue to our country going forward.”

In fact, the most recent international test results indicate that students of all socioeconomic backgrounds are under-performing.

“This is just a system that is not serving us well, and we can’t afford to keep doing what we’ve been doing, both intellectually and economically,” she said.

Highlighting successful education reform ideas and successful initiatives at a national level can help school districts across the nation brainstorm new and unique solutions to common and lingering education problems.

New competitions such as the Investing in Innovation and Race to the Top programs serve to “turn the federal government from a compliance machine into something that encourages innovation,” Weiss said.

Public-private partnerships are another key part of the effort to spur innovation.

“The biggest challenge for us is that education has been a place that is wildly resistant to innovation,” Weiss said. What began as a system that would protect children from becoming guinea pigs in educational fads has resulted in a nation that is desperately in need of innovation, but that is “really good at repelling it,” she said.

“We have to figure out policies that allow us to let [innovation] loose in education,” Weiss added. “This is clearly our path forward, that technology-enabled learning and teaching is the way we’re going to figure out how to teach kids what they need to know and how to be successful in the future.”


Educational gaming is another concept that, while not brand new, is still growing. Concerning the opportunities for scaling educational games, and the barriers,

“It’s really had to make engaging games; if that wasn’t the case, we’d all be millionaires,” said Zoran Popović, professor and director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington’s Department Of Computer Science and Engineering.

But the gaming platform offers several nice advantages:

  • Learning will occur when students spend a certain amount of time on something, and gaming offers a mechanism that lets children from varied backgrounds and with different learning preferences become engaged. Gaming also operates on an incentive structure.
  • “It’s naturally a thing that kids gravitate towards,” Popović said. “It’s the most unintrusive way to introduce education to kids.” It is nimble, as well, and can be accessed inside or outside of school and on various devices.
  • Gaming is a platform for mass-scale randomized studies on what actually works. “Here, you have kids doing a huge number of trials…you can start talking about 500,000 kids of all walks of life and preferences,” Popović said.
  • Educators can use gaming to “try to figure out what are the optimal pathways to conceptual understanding” based on students’ preferences–i.e., does a student like to experiment, or does he or she prefer to think socially? All of these considerations can be customized within a game.

Policy’s impact

A handful of policy changes would enable technology integration, West said. These include a skill mastery approach rather than an age-based or grade-level approach, and moving away from the Carnegie Unit, or seat time requirement.

Most state and federal accountability systems are driven by student age, and not ability, Hughes said.

This presents an even larger problem, and examining a competency-based advancement system that evaluates students on skill mastery instead of based on age or grade level should be an important consideration.

“Seat time obviously is very relevant,” Hughes said. “One of the reasons families come and enroll in virtual schools is to work anytime, anywhere.”

Weiss pointed out that the Carnegie Unit–a time-based measurement of student learning–has been adopted in virtually every state in the country, and suggested that a new idea and new system should take hold.

Equity of access and the opportunity to learn are essential, and Weiss said people must have the access to technology and the ability to use it and adopt it.

Increasing technology access and use in low-income areas is key, Zolt said. “Anything we can do to increase the amount of technology available in low-income environments” will help.

Popović said policy should be loose enough to allow for the quick and easy adoption of successful and scalable pilot initiatives.

In conjunction with the panel discussion, West released “Using Technology to Personalize Learning and Assess Students in Real-Time,” in which he examines how digital technologies have led to new instructional models. The paper details many successful pilot initiatives and makes policy recommendations.

“Sticking to a 20th century production model makes little sense when there are 21st century technologies available that enable different instructional approaches and delivery systems,” West wrote in the report. “The key for educators is to figure out how to use digital technology to engage and instruct students. We need to determine ways to speed up technology adoption and extend it into the learning process in effective ways.”

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Laura Ascione

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