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Personalized Learning and the Power of Adaptive Instruction

Equalizing education with intelligent adaptive learning

Blended learning holds significant promise as a cost-effective and egalitarian means to help higher numbers of students accelerate their learning, graduate, and meet challenges in a competitive world. In this web seminar, orginially broadcast on September 18, 2013, education technology expert Tom Vander Ark shared the keys to making personalized learning work for the greatest number of students through adaptive digital instruction, particularly Intelligent Adaptive Learning. This new technology has the potential to be the ‘equalizer’ that provides greater access and opportunity for students, regardless of background or zip code.

Tom Vander Ark
Getting Smart

The Christensen Institute said that blended learning is when students spend at least part of the day in online delivery of content instruction, with some informative control over time, place, path, or pace. Since 2009, I’ve been using a slightly narrower definition, calling blended learning “a shift into online delivery for a portion of a student’s day, done to make students, teachers and schools more productive.” That rules out a couple things, like babysitting the students. It’s also different being in a high-access environment, even a 1-to-1 environment that’s also still a teacher-centered environment. It’s done to create the opportunity for teachers to work together with students and with each other in new more productive ways.

The most important thing that’s happening in K12 education today is adaptive learning; the ability for at least a portion of the day to access student learning and deliver instruction right at their level. Adaptive learning has developed so much in the last three years that I recommend that students in K8 should be using an adaptive product for 90-120 minutes a week. Schools can use the data from these student experiences to help shape their core instruction. For secondary students, there’s an exciting trend of creating flexibility or an environment that’s more student-centered and takes advantage of a community, like school at museums and schools associated with traveling. We’re seeing hundreds of these flex high schools open every year and schools that have an online curriculum, but meet on-site. Basically schools that really embrace adaptive, anytime learning.

Blended schools use two different staffing strategies. One is differentiated, the other is distributed. It’s been more common to see students interacting with a speech therapist online and overall a greater use in online specialists. The results are really exciting. Students are able to transition out of therapy more quickly. Specialists can work from anywhere and at anytime they want. Districts can much more easily schedule time with a specialist and it often costs less than hiring their own. With an online specialist you can match the specific needs of a student and find the more appropriate specialist. Also schools are using online tutors and a lot of high schools are using online advanced placement courses and online foreign language courses. There’s also potential for teachers.

The blended schools often use a differentiated staffing strategy. They leverage great teachers and create leadership roles for them so they can support new teachers and influence more students. The new teachers in blended environments often walk into a more supported environment. They also have access to online learning opportunities of their own that facilitate an online learning plan for every teacher. States and districts are using a variety of resources like this to combine traditional teaching, but more and more using personalized learning for individual teachers. We’re excited to possibly make education careers more supported and more rewarding, and for all the new options inside and outside the schools for learning professionals.

One K12 school in Detroit is using three different learning models under one roof. Students are using DreamBox in a second grade lab and in their intermediate grades they’re using iPads in the classroom. When they advance to high school, they’re back to using a lab-rotating model and spend half of their time on a flex curriculum and the other half in workshops with master teachers. So three groups of teachers, using three different models, all learning from each other and having the support of some great suppliers. Our guide shows that there are five big decisions you need to make when implementing a blended learning environment: getting your goals right, picking a school model, making the best decision of platform and content, picking the right device, and picking the staffing and staff development strategies.

When picking a school model, you really have two choices: rotation and flex. A rotation is common at the elementary level, flex is more common at the high school level. The flex is an online curriculum, but delivered on-site, with on-site support and workshops. Rotation is just moving from station to station; it’s been most common to use a computer lab to support that, but with the explosion of using inexpensive mobile devices, we’re seeing a real shift for more of a classroom rotation model. We worked with DreamBox on a white paper about blended learning, particularly on personalization. That paper goes into five big benefits of personalized learning and being able to create a more student-centered environment and use personalization strategies to embrace higher Common Core standards to better facilitate self pacing and master-based progression and to improve student ownership.

Competency-based learning is probably the most difficult to implement technically and politically. We’re going to have to make the rules and tools very simple and elegant for teachers and parents, so that the shift is successful. Adaptive learning is really the most important development of the last decade. It combines two important developments: adaptive assessment (quickly assessing a student’s learning level) and combining that with targeting tutoring, meeting their instructional needs.

Tim Hudson
Senior Director of Curriculum Design
DreamBox Learning

Adaptive learning is all about increasing productivity and increasing student learning. Teachers and principals spend a lot of time trying to get learning experiences just right for kids. When we put students in front of computers, the computer is not just there to babysit. DreamBox can engage students in the same types of great thinking that are happening in classrooms across the country. What we do at DreamBox is imagine the types of manipulatives kids are working at alone at their desk anyway. We’ve digitized some of those manipulatives and we can respond by giving students feedback in the moment. It’s more than students answering a question and then having the next question be harder or easier. Certainly that’s a component of adaptive learning, but we do far more than that at DreamBox.

We also do intelligent analysis of student solutions. Because of how we built our manipulatives and our interactive digital experiences for kids, we know if they’re counting by ones, counting by 10s, or if they understand grouping. We can capture exactly how kids are understanding and solving the problem, so we can give them support as they go along. We’re able to build scaffolds into out manipulatives and into the feedback that we give students. We know we just can’t tell students how to solve a problem, there’s much more complexities to how they learn. With our curriculum sequencing and multiple learning experiences, we use multiple concepts to help students understand an idea. We present all of this in a way that’s unique to each student. Some students may need more time learning fractions, but those same students might understand decimals really quickly.

We at DreamBox are trying to digitize great learning experiences, so as a math program for grades preK-5, we differentiate uniquely for each student. DreamBox is available online and we’ll be on the iPad for this school year. The quality of this math software is just as important as the quality of the classroom learning experience.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: