Ten Tips for Personalized Learning via Technology

To challenge and support each child at his or her own level, the educators of Forest Lake Elementary deploy a powerful array of digital-technology tools. Discover what your school can learn.

To challenge and support each child at his or her own level, the educators of Forest Lake Elementary deploy a powerful array of digital-technology tools. Discover what your school can learn.

At Forest Lake Elementary School, in Columbia, South Carolina, the student population grows more diverse by the day. Income levels, ethnicities, family structures, first languages, interests, and abilities now vary so much, that a traditional teaching approach, with a uniform lesson targeted to the average-level student, just doesn't cut it. (Sound familiar to you educators out there?)

To challenge and support each child at his or her own level, the Forest Lake teachers and staff are deploying a powerful array of widely available digital-technology tools. Each classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard and a Tech Zone of eight Internet-enabled computers. Plus, teachers have access to gadgets including digital cameras, Flip cameras, remote-response clickers, and PDAs.

More important than the gadgets themselves, of course, is how the teachers use them to create personalized lessons and a productive environment where each child is engaged. Here are Forest Lake teachers' top tips on how to do it.

1. Deliver Instruction through Multiple Forms of Media

You now have at your fingertips far more than just the old standbys of words and still pictures. Teachers at Forest Lake use computers and whiteboards to access oodles of instructional videos, audio clips, animations, and interactive games, some through software and some available online. Children also cement their knowledge by doing hands-on activities with these media. When learning about shapes, for instance, the youngest students sometimes scour the school with digital cameras, taking photos of shapes wherever they find them. (Download Forest Lake's ideas for using interactive whiteboards.)

2. Gather and Use Immediate Feedback on Students' Understanding

Why wait days or weeks to deliver and grade a quiz to find out which kids missed important concepts? Teachers here routinely use remote-response systems (clickers), colorful little gadgets that allow each child to enter her answer to a practice question so that the teacher can instantly see who got it right or wrong. Computer software programs, too, can give kids practice questions, quickly diagnose trouble spots, and allow teachers to customize subsequent lessons for each child's needs.

3. Give Students Options

All students shouldn't be required to show their learning the same way. And digital media open up a host of possibilities beyond the traditional essay, poster, report, or quiz. For instance, fourth-grade teacher Kevin Durden gives kids additional choices, such as creating a PowerPoint slide show or a comic strip (using Comic Life software) or filming a skit (using Flip video cameras). "This way," says Durden, "you don't see the students' disabilities. You see their abilities." (Download sample rubrics from Forest Lake.)

4. Automate Basic-skills Practice

Free up some hours for more creative, fun technology projects (and for yourself!) by using software to do much of the basic-skills practice and assessment that would otherwise take up a lot of time. Educational computer programs (Study Island and EducationCity are Forest Lake favorites) can identify specific weaknesses in a child's skills, such as understanding analogies or adding fractions. Teachers can review these outcomes daily, then assign lessons to each student according to her needs -- for the next time she logs on.

5. Practice Independent Work Skills

Differentiating instruction often means setting up kids to work alone or in groups. And that, we don't need to tell you, can lead to chaos. The solution for second-grade teacher Tamika Lowe is "practice, practice, practice." Early in the year, she makes her expectations clear, and she and her students repeatedly drill their procedures -- how to use the technology, what to do if you have a question, how to behave if Ms. Lowe isn't standing right there. (Download a sample lesson plan for grade 2 language arts.)

6. Create a Weekly "Must Do" and "May Do" List

Give a classroom of students an array of different, personalized tasks to do, and they'll inevitably finish them at different times. That's a tricky part of differentiation. Forest Lake teachers tackle this by assigning a weekly list of "must dos" and "may dos," so kids who finish first can always find something to do next.

7. Pretest Students' Knowledge Before Each Unit

Before starting each unit of study, grade-level teams at Forest Lake brainstorm a way to assess prior knowledge so they can tailor the lessons effectively to each child. It can be as simple as a question that the class answers with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down or as rigorous as a one-on-one conversation.

8. Be Flexible When Plans Go Awry

Computers don't always perform the way you wish or expect, especially if the teacher in command is new to digital technology. So as you embark on this journey, expect the unexpected. When obstacles arise, you can model good problem-solving behavior by asking students to help you devise alternative approaches. "I say to students, 'You know what? If something doesn't work, it's OK,'" Lowe explains. "Every experience is a learning experience."

9. Let Students Drive

If you've got the tech tools, put them in kids' hands. In Lowe's class, students use Flip cameras to film each other doing oral book reports, then critique both the presentation and the videography. Other Forest Lake teachers routinely give kids turns at leading lessons on the whiteboard, either by hand or with remote tablets called AirLiners. These opportunities allow students to work at their own pace, capitalize on their skills, and discover ways to work around their challenges.

10. Share the Work of Creating Differentiated Lessons

To ease the burden of planning lessons for students at diverse levels, Forest Lake teachers often divide up this task. When they plan each unit of study, different members of each grade-level team design the activities for higher-skilled kids, lower-skilled kids, etc.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.
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This article originally published on 4/26/2010

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Personalized Learning

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Online learning sites like Learning.com and Renzulli make it easy. The problem I find is getting teachers fluent in using these tools. Also, giving students choices is easy by setting up blog sites like edublogs.org. I started last year (www.build-a-brain.com) and before I knew it had lots of links. The tools are there, the problem is teachers making the choice to use them and campus based support to help teachers make the shift to 21st century learning. If decision makers want to see a change, they need to give equitable resources to technology integration and not allocate the majority of their funding to accountability testing and intervention. As we know prevention is cheaper than the cure. This is like buying a car and never changing the oil or using the car for dream travel. It is time for a law that says 20% of all technology funding must go to the campus level support of that technology.

I agree with Bethania,

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I agree with Bethania, sometimes it's really difficult to personalize learning and teaching, due the points mentioned. But techology is undeniable, fundamental to our classes. We could try some alternatives in order to make everybody participate, like asking them to do exercises from a web site at home, or take them to the lab, write compositions and post it at Edmodo, for example.

I think it's really important

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I think it's really important to attend to students' personal needs and interests, but it's something very difficult to do. However, as the article shows, technology can help us in that way. Of course, as teachers we have to look into many possibities to be able to offer our students something that will interest them. It's the new challenge we're facing now, especially because some students still think about using the internet only to have fun, and if the homework activity is fun, maybe it's not really important. Unfortunately, I face this problem with a few students. But I do not give up. I believe technology is our good friend.

Personalizing learning and

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Personalizing learning and teaching is sometimes complicated. Big groups, lots of lessons to prepare.. Hope technology really helps us on this journey!
Great article.

with this new tools education

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with this new tools education can become much more flexible, and open; students can be in charge of their learning process, and they feel more active. The teacher has many ways to put through his lesson, or even let the students be the teacher, everything becomes more fun.

I believe that,dividing all

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I believe that,dividing all the information we have here in tips was an absolutely fantastic idea.And the most fantastic of all:each student is treated according to his/her differencies,and just remembering,this is done using technology,which is modern,updated,totally understood by the young.I will certainly try and use these tips with my English students.

Maths and Science teacher from Victoria, Australia

Using iPods for personalised learning in Maths classes

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Thanks for your great and timely advice - I will be using these tips when I start to implement an iPod program at our school next semester. I have written about how I hope to achieve differentiated instruction at my Technoscience blog. I think it is also important to give students the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning.

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This is to Monica Schnee; congratulations and your work sounds great. On a personal note, please reply if you have Schnee relatives from Philadelphia, PA, which is my family, & would like to connect.
Francess Tiger

Elementary Resource Teacher

Technology With Special Needs Students

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I am one of the resource teachers at Forest Lake. I use my SMARTBoard daily to teach reading. I have games that I have organized according to the steps of the reading curriculum use, so that I pull them up to target specific encoding & decoding skills. e.g. short e, or closed syllable words that end in the digraph ck.
When I am working with individuals or a small group, I also assign students specific "may dos" & "must does" on the computer. In some cases, the list may require them to record a score on the educational online game they used to practice.
Forest Lake subscribes to Education City which has games to address standards-based reading skills that are super practice for phonemic awareness. I can monitor student progress through Education City when they do those activities.
I have found that long-term planning makes my whole year proceed much better. I spent last summer creating SMARTBoard lessons and developing my long range plans to include online resources. I put the web sites or games from Education City right into the plan, so when I'm planning during the school year everything is there already.
There's a document a colleague & I developed for a presentation called Smart Ways to Use the SMARTBoard here on Edutopia in the free resources and tools section that provides a breakdown of websites that are annotated by use. I constantly add & adjust the handout for my own use in planning throughout the school year.
Forest Lake's Links for Kids site is another great place to find student activities. http://www.fle.richland2.org/~sweston/websites.htm

Technology with Special Needs Students

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I really enjoyed this article, these are some great ideas! I'm currently taking a graduate course and learning about different technology tools. I'm a K-4 Learning Support teacher (resource room) and I have not really been using technology with my students that much. Some of my students have computers at home, some do not (the ones that do use them to play games). I will find some education games so they can go on and play-but time is of the essence! Does anyone have any ideas on how to incorporate technology when working with students in basic reading skills? I would be interested to hear any ideas!

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