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How K-12 Educators Are Harnessing Insights to Improve Learning

  • 7 Min Read

The use of personalized learning for K-12 students is experiencing a massive surge as educators and policymakers continue to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a 2021 report from the Qatar Foundation produced by Economist Impact, 99% of respondents said the pandemic had accelerated their school’s adoption of personalized learning.

But while adoption is growing, educators and parents alike are asking how effective personalized learning actually is for K-12 students. The main concern cited is whether personalized learning relies too much on technology that potentially has algorithmic biases that can unfairly reduce some students’ ability to succeed in the classroom.

“I think one of the key takeaways is that technology can help in some way, but really the culture, the school that they’re operating in, the buy-in from all the various stakeholders, just even the quality of a teacher, all of that is going to have a way bigger impact,” said Antonia Kerle, policy and insights research manager for technology, media and education at Economist Impact, a global think tank and media brand.

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How Personalized Learning Supports Learning Growth

In this eBook, we define personalized learning as a teaching practice and share different ways to personalize learning...

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Continuing research and feedback have helped educators and administrators understand those concerns to use education technology to deliver personalized learning that benefits all students. Robert F. Murphy, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation told Education Week that AI systems used for measuring progress need to be used in conjunction with educator insights.

“This is why for AI applications, such as early warning systems where the consequences are significant, I advocate that the output of the systems should only be used as one data point in the decision-making process along with the professional judgments of teachers and administrators based on their personal experience and knowledge of individual students,” Murphy said.

Industry and governmental bodies have been tasked with ensuring algorithmic biases are not causing undue harm to students, including legislation at the state and federal levels that force software vendors to ensure their tools serve all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender and financial status.

The 2019 report “Algorithmic Systems in Education,” from the Center for Democracy and Technology, declared that “Educational institutions and their vendors should be open and transparent about how and when algorithms are used to make decisions affecting students and their families.”

Today, many education leaders are looking at leveraging insights and metrics from educational technology to implement personalized learning that can improve student outcomes.

Technology Is Only Part of Effective Personalized Learning

Even before the pandemic, educators were leveraging insights to drive personalized learning. A report from the Aurora Institute in 2018 showed that 46% of elementary school teachers and 36% of middle school teachers were using data insights to provide differentiated instruction to their students.

In a 2022 interview with Park Record, Park City School District (Utah) Chief Academic Officer Amy Hunt said the district’s move to personalized learning is part of their push to create a “human-centered culture that recognizes the whole individual.”

Frederick Hess, senior fellow and director, Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said while personalized learning has significant benefits, it can’t deliver if it ignores the relationships between students and educators.

“When it’s designed to offer more coaching, free up time for meaningful teacher-student interaction, or offer students more personalized feedback, technology can make a significant, positive difference,” Hess said in a post on the American Enterprise Institute blog.

Research and real-world uses have shown the impact of insight-driven personalized learning for long-term academic success. In an Education Week interview, Stacy Stewart, principal of Belmont-Cragin Elementary School in Chicago, said that personalized learning helped their school progress from being one of the lower-ranked schools in their district to one of the top-tier schools in just a few years.

“As we delved into personalized learning, we saw huge increases in student growth where you have 95 percent or more of our students meeting or exceeding growth standards in reading and math,” Stewart said.

But while having access to technology is critical for success, it is only part of the equation. In a recent interview in Education Week, Dabae Lee, an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said, “Technology alone is not a key factor in the success of personalized learning, but it is an essential enabler, especially for personalized learning in a [K-12] classroom with a large number of students. Using powerful technology systems will not guarantee the success of personalized learning. However, it is a must-have tool that helps teachers implement personalized learning.”

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Personalized Learning for Every Student

D2L Brightspace helps support personalized models to power next-generation learning.

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Personalized Learning in Light of the Pandemic

As educators start planning for the post-COVID-19 classroom, an important consideration is how students and schools have changed in significant ways over the past two years. Insight-driven, personalized learning is essential to helping educators, students, and parents navigate the new normal.

In the 2021 report “Activate Deep Learning and Lift From Loss,” New Pedagogies for Deep Learning states that “Educators cannot assume they know the student now as they did pre-pandemic. Rushing in with remediation does not respect how the student has grown over the past year.”

The report provides 10 priorities for educators to help students as they return to the classroom, two of which can benefit from the use of insights and metrics.

First, the report recommends using an asset lens when reviewing where students are in their studies. Instead of looking at the gaps, focus on what knowledge they’re returning with and provide personalized learning experiences based on that.

Second, the report touches on one of the primary benefits of personalized learning—providing an individualized education experience instead of attempting a one-size-fits-all approach. “When you have listened to students’ interests and strengths, meet them where their minds are. This may mean differentiated instruction, purposeful grouping, customized timetabling, individualized support, partnering students with other experts. While this sounds like a lot of work up front, it will reduce disengagement and other concerns later on.”

Data-Informed Design Interventions Can Free Up Time to Teach

Tapping into insights from education technology tools is helping educators tailor their teaching to meet the needs of every student. As reported by Amy Burroughs in EdTech Magazine, the Saugus Union School District (SUSD) has seen significant improvements in student outcomes by using data to drive decisions with a student-focused lens. In the 2020 story, SUSD elementary school principal Carin Fractor said, “When teachers see how students are learning, design interventions based on the data, and see the growth, that’s what hooks them.”

Personalized learning that uses insights can help educators make instructional decisions and empowers students to review their own progress and take ownership of their education.

In his post for the American Enterprise Institute blog, Hess recommended that educators and administrators keep one question in mind when looking at personalized learning “…the guiding question for adopting any new technology should be: Will it help teachers spend more time coaching, mentoring, and supporting students, and less time on repetitive tasks or presenting content in suboptimal ways?”

Learn How to Personalize Learning for Every Student

Recognizing each student’s lived experience and social, emotional, and academic journeys can help us accelerate learning today and build a more student-centered, resilient system tomorrow. By personalizing student growth models, D2L Brightspace can help teachers authentically build on an individual’s strengths, interests, and needs in order to accelerate continued development and enrichment.

We’re here to help teachers do what they do best, understand where their students are today and help guide them to where they need to be tomorrow.

Learn more about personalized learning for every student

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