What life before edtech can teach us about personalized learning

[In this article from the Clayton Christensen Center blog, Julie Freeland Fisher makes a strong case for focusing on instructional strategies before leaping into an edtech solution. In my years as a technology leader I’ve seen numerous times where technology was a short-term fix; the long-term solution was about learning.]

by Julia Freeland Fisher

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

In many circles, edtech and the future of learning have become synonymous. This is unsurprising given the enormous uptick in online courses and technology tools in K–12 schools nationwide, not to mention the promise that technology holds to dismantle barriers to access and experience that have plagued the education system for years.

Yet, with excitement over new gadgets and possibilities, schools and edtech entrepreneurs alike often miss a key step: defining what the ideal student experience should look like absent technology. Before building, trying, or buying new technology tools, we should start by asking, “In an analog world, how would we personalize learning to drive student outcomes?”

This question can refocus edtech enthusiasts on the right unit of innovation: instruction. All too often, when we talk about edtech innovations, technology takes the lead and instructional models are relegated to playing a supporting role. By first taking the time to imagine an ideal tech-free instructional model, schools can avoid the temptation to merely digitize their traditional systems or cram hardware into classrooms ill-equipped to take advantage of what technology can offer. Instead, by establishing an ideal vision of learning in a tech-free world, schools and edtech companies stand to more effortlessly deploy technology in a manner that predictably drives outcomes in the long run.

My colleague Thomas Arnett’s new case study, “Connecting ed & tech: Partnering to drive student outcomes,” highlights an example of a school, and one particularly innovative teacher, that took this order of operations to heart. Starting in 2008, Michael Fauteux, a veteran math teacher at Leadership Public Schools (LPS), created Academic Numeracy, a companion math course to Algebra 1 for all 9th graders who were below grade level in math. The course was designed in line with two textbooks and a supplemental online software program that Fauteux’s colleague, Todd McPeak, had developed. After showing dramatic results in students’ math scores, LPS expanded Academic Numeracy to all three schools in the San Francisco Bay Area network the following year.

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