Personalized Education

The how and why of an education model that truly helps students.

GUEST COLUMN | by Shawn Bay

CREDIT eScholarRecently there has been a great deal of positive hype about transforming the education model into one that equips each student with the appropriate foundation and specialized skills at the pace and delivery method that best meets their needs. The promise, in essence, is to provide a personalized education for each and every student. Two key elements necessary for this to occur are beginning to take shape: a common understanding of the skills and capabilities we are trying to teach and the collection and use of data that can guide personalization.

Providing students with a personalized education is the fundamental motivation of every teacher I have met. When asked to describe their best experience as a teacher, the answer always refer back to a time they connected one-on-one with a student in a way that changed that student’s life. Equally important, students excel when they receive an education that fits their needs and goals.

Today’s mass education model provides little opportunity for teachers to do what they are so passionate about. Two popular ideas for increasing the opportunity for personalization are: reducing class size and eliminating the time devoted to assessments.

Reducing class size does not solve the problem at the root cause. While having 10 percent or even 30 percent more teachers for the same number of students may increase the likelihood of a personalization experience, the result is limited by the teaching model in place today. It seems unlikely that any sector of the education industry has the ability to increase budgets by 10 percent, let alone 30 percent. We need to consider alternative means.

Eliminating assessments is not practical unless there is another way to evaluate what skills students have mastered. Assessments help the teacher understands when a student “gets it” so they can move on. Eliminating assessments may increase the teacher and student engagement that leads to personalization, but the impact could be marginal as assessment elimination reduces the information teachers have about how much their students learn.

Our common goal is an education system that can meet each one of our students where they are and take them to the place they want to go. To accomplish this, we need to think through what a truly personalized education would be and exactly what it would take to deliver this on a large scale.

The key ingredients of personalized education are in place. We have many dedicated and highly skilled teachers. There are innovative technologies that transform the way we learn. We have vast capability to gather the data that helps us understand student’s needs, goals, and performance. Today, for the first time, many states and districts have begun to collect education data that can help individual students. Finally, we are beginning to create the skills progression roadmap that will allow each student to follow a different path and to know exactly when they’ve reached their goals.

Let’s talk first about data. For 30 years, my work in education and other industries has been driven by data — helping to collect and apply those data to improve customer experience. I understand the sensitive issues of privacy and confidentiality of data. These are data about people’s lives! Safeguards must be put in place. A clear understanding of the responsibility accepted by the custodians of these data is a requirement.

Personalizing education is different than other personalization concepts. Acquiring skills is a progression over time. For example, to determine if a student is ready for Calculus, prerequisites must be met. Addressing this issue appears to be simple: did you take Algebra 2 and Trigonometry and pass? In reality, this approach does not explain what skills were taught in these classes, nor does it identify if a student acquired the most essential skills. A finer level of detail on skill progression to support meaningful personalization is required.

For years, some of the leading states have developed common definitions of the skills they are trying to teach and how those skills relate to one another. The Common Core State Standards initiative is focused on bringing these dictionaries together across states. The result of these initiatives produces the “road map” that will allow students to follow different paths to achieve the same goals.

The emergence of skill maps, along with the availability of data that helps educators know what skills a student has mastered can be combined with their interests and goals to form a powerful foundation for personalized education. These elements enable an educator to provide a personalized pathway for students but do not improve the efficiency of the process and let it scale. For this, technology can help.

There are a number of teams working to bring together data, including student goals, progress, skill definition and content and put that information in the hands of educators, parents and students in a form they can use to drive personalized education. We are privileged to be members of a number of these teams across the country, each team taking different approaches and using different technologies with a single goal in mind — helping each student achieve their best potential by following the path that fits their needs best.

The work being done to transform our education system from one focused on mass production to one focused on personalization began a long time ago. Now we need to stay focused through the inevitable frustrations and missteps. From my perspective, I know this is the most important thing I will ever be involved in. We are making a positive difference for our children.

Shawn Bay is the CEO and Founder of eScholar, a market leader in education data serving more than 18 million students. A data warehousing pioneer, he has extensive knowledge and experience in data quality issues, data sources and successful approaches to applying data to improve education. Contact him through eScholar.

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