May 20 2020

CoSN2020: Embracing a New Look for Personalized Learning

To boost engagement and reduce achievement gaps, educators are rethinking the look of classrooms and their approaches to instruction.

Several years ago, some students in San Francisco Unified School District had the wrong idea about educational technology.

They viewed technology as a “toy” or “free time,” Ben Klaus, principal of Jose Ortega Elementary, said during a virtual presentation at CoSN2020, the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking. “It was to browse the internet to play games.”

“We wanted to unpack that and disrupt that, and make a plan for how we can achieve a goal of tech being viewed and used by students as a tool and resource for their learning.”

One of the first things that had to change? The makeup of the classroom.

That’s just one part of the district’s pilot program that combines personalized, technology-enhanced instruction with learning environment design. This fall marks the third year of the program, which was rolled out at 12 of 143 SFUSD schools. An early success: greater student engagement at the participating schools, Klaus said.

Modern learning environments like those being developed in SFUSD are designed to foster more collaboration and include technology that enhances learning. The embrace of MLEs in K–12 schools is also linked to workforce demands for employees who are adept at critical thinking and problem-solving.

For SFUSD, the focus on blended learning and personalized learning also helps to address achievement gaps among students of different races and ethnicities, as well as those who have disabilities, speak English as a second language or come from economically disadvantaged families. The high-performing district aims to address every student’s needs, and its leaders strategize ways to tackle the root causes of its challenges, said E’leva Hughes Gibson, assistant superintendent of the district’s pre-K–8 Schools Division, Cohort 5. One way to do that, she said, is to address how the district provides access and equity for every child. The personalized learning program helps with that.

Adopting New Mindsets That Foster Personalized Learning

A key part of the district’s shift to a personalized learning environment also requires four mindsets:

Addition by subtraction: Think about classroom elements that can be removed to boost learning, personalization and students’ interactions, Klaus said. Minimize distractions, such as cluttered classrooms, and find opportunities to free up learning space, he added. That approach also involves rethinking classroom furniture and being intentional about enabling students to “be their best selves” while learning, he said.

Equity and access: “How can we design with equity at the center of it all, ensuring that all students have their needs met regardless of their background or their levels, and then how can we empower our learners to be autonomous and self-driven?” Gibson asked. Considering those questions and ways to offer students more opportunities “has helped us think about how we can leverage technology to be a powerful tool” to increase equity, she said.

Push versus pull: “How much information are we pushing at students? And how much are we pulling from them?” Gibson asked. “Children are not empty vessels. They have so much to offer, especially from their experiences, their backgrounds and their interests.”

Think about blended learning models that allow students to collaborate with each other and make connections. Also, consider frameworks and approaches such as project-based learning that allow students to use technology for research and to dive deeper into different topics, she said.

Process over product: Instead of just focusing on outcomes, the SFUSD method encourages students to express and make visible their thinking process, Klaus said. “How are we celebrating this growth over time?” How are we getting feedback through the process?”

One approach is to have students complete digital portfolios. Teachers participating in the pilot also create portfolios. They use Google sites to archive and collect evidence about “their learning journey,” Klaus said.

MORE ON EDTECH: Find the right blended learning tool for your school.

Pilot Program Works in Classrooms, but What About Online?

Teachers participating in the pilot gather for training and visit each other’s classrooms. They also meet with experts, such as learning space designer Rebecca Hare, who consults with SFUSD about its pilot program. Principals also undergo training and visit other schools and districts to see examples of the approach to personalized learning.

District leaders are discussing ways to shift the approach online for remote learning, Gibson said. For example, in a virtual environment, the push-versus-pull mindset might involve synchronous time when students collaborate with each other as well as asynchronous learning, when teachers present new content and push it to students to handle individually before receiving one-on-one feedback.

In a virtual environment, the addition-by-subtraction mindset involves being intentional about the platforms used, Klaus said. The equity-and-access mindset involves providing devices and tools, such as hotspots, to students.

“We’re going to design learning experiences that pull from students’ interests and backgrounds” regardless of whether they are in a physical space or a virtual one, Gibson said.

EdTech is covering CoSN2020: A Breakthrough Virtual Experience, so keep this page bookmarked for our ongoing coverage. Follow @EdTech_K12 on Twitter for live updates and join the conversation using #CoSN2020.

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