A roadmap for change: Moving your personalized learning program forward

Image: Bart Everson, CC

Image: Bart Everson, CC

by Elizabeth LeBlanc & Christopher Harrington

In her keynote speech at Edgenuity’s 2019 Partner Summit, CEO Sari Factor remarked that other industries have seen dramatic changes in the day-to-day of how they do business based on their innovative uses of technology. Across the country, there are promising school models that are breaking down the traditional structures of our learning system and creating high-quality effective personalized learning programs to better meet student needs, but unfortunately, this shift remains the exception rather than the norm. The transformational promise of online, blended, and digital learning is far from realized in the vast majority of our classrooms, schools, and districts - and consequently, for our students as well. So what is holding us back from truly revolutionizing teaching and learning across our country?

In the Institute for Teaching and Leading’s recent study -- The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning -- we examined this question from a variety of perspectives and found that many schools and districts follow a roughly similar evolution along six different areas of change and innovation. The schools and districts we studied span a range of implementations, from fairly new programs in their first year (22% of study participants), to schools with programs that have been in existence for two to three years (57%), and schools reporting on programs that have been established for four years or longer (21%). The image below shows the extent to which change in each of the six areas of change and innovation has impacted or supported the implementation and sustainability of personalized learning in the programs we studied:

Any one of these areas can serve as either “launch pads” or “stalling out” points in a school or district’s journey towards a more student-centered approach to learning. Schools that are working to implement personalized learning programs shared the many challenges they have encountered along the way - as well as some of the key strategies that helped them get “unstuck” and moving once again, which we’ve shared in the bulleted list below:

  • Technology:  Across all of these, the area of technology emerged as the ‘early indicator’ of change. This is the area in which schools and districts looking to implement personalized learning at scale tended to innovate or allocate resources first so that subsequent changes could reach all learners.

  • Leadership: While leadership at the district and the building level came in second in terms of the degree of change in this growth model, it is clear from the data gathered that effective leadership is at the heart of driving any sustained shift to a transformative learning environment. Data collected revealed that the actions of district-level leaders have a strong impact on motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset of principals, assistant principals, teachers, instructional staff - and even students.

  • Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment: After technology and leadership, changes in teaching and learning are the next landmarks in a school or district’s personalized learning roadmap. Learning progressions that are aligned to district-level outcomes or standards were credited by 78% of respondents as having a “great” to “moderate” impact on the maintenance of highly personalized learning environments. Assessments often involve “knowledge checks” before a student was allowed to progress to the next learning standard and/or larger, cross-curricular assessments that allow students to demonstrate mastery by applying the concepts learned in novel or complex ways.

  • Professional Development: Teacher support is another lynchpin of program success. Approximately 75% of the responding schools indicated that they incorporated personalized learning practices into their professional development models as well as their student learning. Areas such as teacher “voice and choice,” teacher ownership of learning, and variation in learning formats available to teachers all demonstrated growth. Teacher and administrator participants alike stated that incorporating these aspects effectively modeled to teachers how learning for students should look and feel.

  • School Operations: Logistics, logistics, logistics! Perhaps the most difficult “traditional structure” to transform in schools shifting to a personalized or customized learning model is that of school operations. Reporting schools identified the modification of student schedules (daily and weekly) to be the most significant progress made in changing time-based structures to support student-centered learning. This area is one of the biggest “sticking points” for schools and districts because while some change and innovation is possible at the classroom level, breaking with the traditional structures at the school or district level (such as bell schedule, annual calendar, and/or staffing models) is a complex issue that can often run counter to state-level statutes, union rules, and national policy decisions.

  • Community Engagement: Engaging the greater school community to understand, develop, and support the shift to a personalized or customized learning model was the last area to see change as reported by schools and districts interviewed - however, as several remarked in retrospect, this really should have been the first or second area of growth in tandem with leadership. School leaders, teachers, and parents interviewed during the study explained that frequent and meaningful communication of the vision, goals, and “the why” of implementation was an important aspect of garnering support. In one case, a district held community consensus meetings for up to two years to explain their vision and build 80% buy-in for teachers and community members before moving forward.

While we are categorizing these activities in the order that the majority of schools and districts in this study reported experiencing growth and change, this is not necessarily the desired or ideal order. This misreading of the roadmap, at a school or district level, may in and of itself be a place where initiatives get “stuck” - that is, they are doing all the right things, but in the wrong order. It is also important to note that everyone’s starting point on this journey will be different - based on their own contexts, schools and districts may be strong in one area and will need to prioritize another in order to move forward.

The reality is that most schools and districts building a personalized learning programs will encounter programs and/or resistance in at least one of these areas, and very likely will experience growing pains at each stage. In our continuing series on the DLC blog, i4tl will be reporting on other lessons learned during this research project as part of our commitment to making education research meaningful, accessible, and getting it into the hands of the practitioners who need it the most.

***Note: The research study The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning was published by the Institute for Teaching and Leading in partnership with Edgenuity, Inc. and EdSurge, Inc.

About the Authors

Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is the Director of Teaching and Learning for Taos Academy Charter School as well as CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading

Dr. Christopher Harrington is the Director of the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, the research arm of Michigan Virtual. He also serves as the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Institute for Teaching and Leading.