Teachers have always known that a typical class of two dozen or more students can include vastly different skill levels and learning styles. But meeting those varied academic needs with a defined curriculum, time limitations, and traditional instructional
tools can be daunting for even the most skilled instructor.
Some of the latest technology tools for the classroom, however, promise to ease the challenges of differentiating instruction more creatively and effectively, ed-tech experts say, even in an era of high-stakes federal and state testing mandates.
New applications for defining and targeting students’ academic strengths and weaknesses can help teachers create a personal playlist of lessons, tools, and activities that deliver content in ways that align with individual needs and optimal learning methods.
For educators who struggle to integrate technology into their daily routines and strategies, the notion of a kind of individualized education plan for every student is more pipe dream than prospect. Yet the most optimistic promoters of digital learning say the vision of a tech-immersed classroom for today’s students—one that offers a flexible and dynamic working environment with a range of computer-based and face-to-face learning options customized for each student—is not far off.
Several examples of such customization have recently emerged across the country, and are garnering widespread interest and some encouraging results.
"Those examples are a crude picture of a future scenario, where there’s a student playlist of learning experiences, some of which happen in something that looks like a classroom, some with a computer, and some at a community resource, like a library, museum, college, or workplace,” says Tom Vander Ark, a former executive director of education for the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who has advocated for years that schools should take a more individualized approach to learning. He is now a partner inVander Ark/Ratcliff, an education venture-capital firm. “Their day could look like an interesting variety of activities, driven by their learning needs, not by the school’s limitations.”
‘Feedback to Children’
Vander Ark says that supplemental-service providers, like private tutoring companies or after-school programs, have taken the lead in offering tailored instruction. The ways those providers use assessment tools to gather and process data and then suggest a roster of activities for each student could pave the way for similar approaches within the school day, he says.
He points to one widely publicized model: New York City's School of One.
The pilot program at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School in Chinatown provided math lessons that were customized every day to meet the individual needs, and progress, of the 80 incoming 7th graders who volunteered to attend the five-week session this past summer. The School of One combined face-to-face instruction, software-based activities, and online lessons designed to move each new 7th grader through a defined set of math benchmarks at his or her own pace.
As students entered school each morning, they could view their schedules for the day on a computer monitor—similar to the arrival-and-departure monitors at airports—and proceed to the assigned locations. A student’s schedule could include traditional lessons from a certified teacher, small-group work, virtual learning, or specific computer-based activities, most of them offered in converted space in the school library.
After each half-day of instruction, teachers entered data on students’ progress and instructional needs into a computer program that recommended the next day’s tasks.
Preliminary data showed significant student progress toward mastering the skills targeted in the program, officials say. The district is continuing to track participants’ progress.
The school—named one of the 50 best inventions of 2009 by Time magazine—expanded in the fall to three middle schools in the city as an after-school program, and is set to guide the school-day math course at one of them this spring.