A Digital Leap in Education


An age of technology leads to transforming conventional education into Personalized Learning

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one learned in school, observed Albert Einstein. If conventional schooling seemed irrelevant then, it is several fold more irrelevant in a digital age, where knowledge is no longer in the control of educators.

The image of a conventional classroom with desks in neat rows, where children sit obediently, facing the teacher who is at the head of the classroom, is no longer the norm. Sir Ken Robinson of Britain, acclaimed as one of “the world’s elite thinkers on creativity and innovation,” is creating perspective on the changing needs of education. He said, “Teaching is a creative profession, not a delivery system. Great teachers do [pass on information], but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage.”

This is the principle that is driving the new concept in education – Personalized Learning. There is a fundamental difference in the two concepts. Traditional teaching is what you are given. Personalized Learning is what you seek.  The traditional system focuses on standardized testing, which is a measure of how much a particular student learned during a given period and how successful the teachers and the school were in imparting knowledge to the student in order to get through the exam.  These standardized tests could be either True/False questions, Multiple Choice questions or Essay-type questions. These are familiar tests, but extremely costly to society. In 2012, the whole system of standardized testing cost the states in the US about $1.7 billion for the year. Students spend about 20-25 hours totally, taking these tests, but they study a total of around 175 days preparing for them. It is considered a lot of time and resources spent on a system of testing where accuracy and pertinence are questioned in a world where technology has progressed beyond the system.

Personalized Learning, on the other hand, takes the whole body of instruction and content and tailors it, along with the pace of learning and testing, to suit the unique needs of every student, using technology, data and consistent feedback.

Instead of focusing only on textbooks and worksheets and rote learning, teachers today are using a blend of several instructional models. Learning spaces are no longer boring. Small groups of students sit around tables with their teachers, with a more collaborative element to learning. “They can’t hide in the classrooms anymore. Every kid is involved in every lesson, answering every question,” says Rachael Moola, a teacher in a middle school in the state of Pennsylvania, in the US. Furthermore, the US Department of Education in its National Education Technology Plan 2010   focuses on Personalized Learning, and places “students at the center and empowers them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions.”  The Plan emphasizes three essential elements of Personalized Learning – clear-cut learning objectives for each student, specific teaching approaches and defined pace of learning.

The US state of Rhode Island appears to be taking a national lead in driving the Personalized Learning concept into classroom reality. Drawing strength from the country’s federal education law, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which gives substantial decision-making back to states, Rhode Island is experimenting on ways to personalize learning for its 140,000 K-12 students. According to Director of Education for the Rhode Island Governor’s Office of Innovation, Daniela Fairchild, Rhode Island is seeking to “become the first state in the nation with a new model on a systemic level.”

Indeed, Personalized Learning is increasing the level of engagement among teachers and students. Technology is a great contributor to teachers’ understanding of where their students are at a given time in their understanding of their specified areas of study. Apps, tuition centers, and math centers like Happy Numbers are a great boon to teachers as well as students, for problem areas are identified and teachers are able to make best use of their time in helping students to grapple with their individuals issues.

In the midst of technology, teachers provide vital guidance to students, helping them use the learning tools to maximize their learning experience, and blend technology for deeper and richer insight. Technology serves a dual purpose for it is also essential for teachers to collect important data on the students’ progress. In the transitional period from traditional into personalized learning, teachers need to use technology to add another dimension to teaching, and help students to individually integrate their understanding of the subject. Acclaimed US writer on education, says, “Every child has a different learning style and pace. Each child is unique, not only capable of learning, but also capable of succeeding.”

Technology leads to Augmented Reality (AR) in the classroom, for students can learn beyond their textbooks and worksheets. Technology enables life-like imaging, and the 3D images stir students to delve deeper into learning about the subject, seeking, questioning, discussing, and debating. Learning comes alive in a memorable way, generating greater desire to learn. As Sir Ken Robinson said, “Curiosity is the vitamin of learning.” He also pays tribute to the unsung heroism of everyday teachers. “Great teachers are not just instructors and test administrators. They are mentors, coaches, motivators, and lifelong sources of inspiration to their students. Teaching is an art form. Great teachers know they have to cultivate curiosity, passion and creativity in their students.”

Thus, Personalized Learning, is an experiment in education in the digital age, where technology has unlocked the door to information to one and all. The changing role of the teacher in the classroom is even more important now, with so much information in the hands of students. The change needs to be integrated with flexibility, for students and society at large to reap the full benefit of technology. As Charles Darwin commented, in a bygone era, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

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