Finally, Ed Tech Is Partnering with Teachers to Improve the Impact of Personalized Learning

Nov 3, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Marilyn Rhames

I’ll just say it: As a teacher, I hated the “ed tech” conversation. Sure, I used basic technology in my classroom—maybe some iPads, or websites like Kahn Academy and Edublogs. But I hated #EdTech Twitter feeds and ed tech professional development and, most of all, ed tech conferences. Why? Because the technology gurus always seemed to parade their inventions as the silver bullet that would undo years of bad teaching. Conversations were often driven by software developers who were raking in millions in sales and who gushed about how their technology, with its clever animations and gamey-game-games, were “disrupting” the cycle of failure for those low-income, disadvantaged kids. I would walk away honestly wondering if they thought they could replace teachers with their fancy robots and apps. The ed tech rhetoric rarely referenced the classroom as a living organism within an ecosystem of students’ social-emotional lives, families and communities. I felt that my students and I were being widgetized by the creators of the technology. Ed tech was the sun, and all the other moving parts of my classroom were supposed to revolve around it. That all changed this week, on the opening day of the first-ever EdSurge Fusion Conference at a hotel near the San Francisco airport. A panel of experts explained quite clearly why the personalized learning movement has faltered and why they believe it must succeed if we can ever hope to close the achievement gap among racial groups and also among nations. Step one was defining what personalized learning is. “If we were here just a year ago, we’d all have very different definitions of personalized learning,” said Phyllis Lockett, CEO of LEAP Innovations. “Once we all come together with a commonality of terms we are able to leverage our work.” Lockett defined personalized learning in four ways:
  1. Focused on the learner,
  2. led by the learner,
  3. mastery and pace demonstrated by the learner, and
  4. connected to relevant communities of the learner.
She said one of the biggest obstacles to effective implementation is teachers not trusting their students to drive their own learning. So far, the Fusion conference has been extremely informative. For one, I learned some new terms, like “learner variability.” It means that people learn in vastly different ways and rates, a problem best mitigated by personalized learning, says Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise. But [pullquote]here’s the problem: It’s nearly impossible to pick the right technology product.[/pullquote] “There are more than 6,000 ed tech products,” explained Bart Epstein, CEO of the Jefferson Education Accelerator. “Many are outstanding, but they are all very different. It’s difficult to know which one is going to work best in the classroom. The question is not what works. The question that we are all going to start asking ourselves is, what are the factors that explain why the same ed tech products that work in hundreds of schools, won’t work in hundreds of other schools, and only sort of work in thousands of other schools?” Epstein’s firm has partnered with the University of Virginia to create a database of proof points and contextually relevant feedback from teachers to provide school districts with a critical view of which ed tech products are most effective for which students. And that brings me back to my original point. [pullquote position="right"] Finally, teachers are considered “value-add” agents in the personalized learning technology conversation.[/pullquote] It was nice to hear phrases like “school culture,” “childhood trauma,” and “researcher-practitioner partnerships” being cited as legitimate variables impacting the efficacy of ed tech products. The school is an “ecosystem,” said Stacey Childress, CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund. “It makes it really important that we get serious about the multi-method approach, and start to notice the associations and correlations about a whole set of things.” Hooray for humanizing the ed tech discussion! It’s about time that I feel respected in my profession as a human, warm-blooded, breathing teacher at an ed tech conference. I didn’t have to be the one in the room asking, “But what about the role of the teacher?!” With the new federal education law, ESSA, having shifted even more power and control of academic assessment and accountability from the federal government to the states, now is the perfect time to get personal, says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “I think this is an incredible time,” Wise said. “However you feel about ESSA right now, you don’t have to worry about the federal Department of Education stopping you from doing something. Permission granted. “There’s some pitfalls to that,” he acknowledged. “But there are also some gains. We’ve got 50 states and 14,000 school districts where it’s open season to implement personalized learning.”

Marilyn Rhames

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” She is currently on the design team for Harvard University's Leaders' Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE). Marilyn has 14 years experience teaching in Chicago Public Schools, but before becoming an educator Marilyn worked as a journalist for People and Time magazines and for newspapers including New York Newsday and The Journal News. She currently writes for Education Post and has published pieces in the Huffington Post, Black Enterprise and RealClearEducation. Marilyn was named 2013 Commentator/Blogger of the Year by the Bammy Awards for her Education Week blog, entitled “Charting My Own Course." She was a 2016 Surge Institute Fellow and a Teach Plus teaching policy fellow from 2010-1012. Through her consulting firm Rhames Consulting, Marilyn offers a full range of services from education content editing to providing professional development on community engagement to public speaking on issues of faith, race, writing, and education. Marilyn has served as an education commentator on 90.1 FM Moody Radio Chicago; the presenter of a 2013 TEDx talk entitled “Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo”; and a 2017 speaker at the Yale University Education Leadership Conference. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a master’s degree in education from National Louis University. Marilyn is a wife and mother of three. In August 2017, she came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk about the Black experience in America's public schools. These conversations were released as a video series in Getting Real About Education: A Conversation With Black Parents, Teachers and Students.

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