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Students attend classes at Brooklyn LAB school Credit: Submitted photo

All learning should be personal – we are teaching individual students, after all – but when advocates talk about “personalized learning” they are often describing programs and teaching methods that look unlike the typical school. They envision school as a place where students have more control over their own studies; where they are not constrained by age or grade level; where children can move through subjects as fast or slowly as they need.

Educators, researchers and advocates still quibble over the precise definition of personalized learning, but most agree on this much: In these classrooms teachers don’t pass out identical worksheets and tests to every student.

Achieving personalized instruction is one of the challenges cited in a new report from two organizations, the New Media Consortium and the Consortium for School Networking. Their annual report, produced by 59 leading experts with online input from others, plots the five-year look ahead for education technology. The Horizon Report, as it is known, began in 2004 and is one of the longest-running publications of its kind.

“It’s a complete rethink of our industrialized model of schools,” said Keith R. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit organization serving K-12 school technology professionals.

What can a local school district do with this information? Does every school need to buy software that promises to “personalize” learning, lest they be left hopelessly behind the trends? Should educators incorporate all 18 topics mentioned in the report into their classroom?

In a word: No.

Schools leaders, parents and students should first figure out a plan for what they want school to be like in their community. Then, they can use the report to see if it points them toward solutions for problems they uncover.

“Whatever the problem is at the local level, that’s the question to start with,” Krueger said, adding that the report also includes a “tool kit” to help local leaders facilitate these discussions.

And this year, the report ranked eliminating the achievement gap – meaning the unequal learning outcomes of poor and minority children – and figuring out personalized learning as the two toughest problems to solve.

“Whatever the problem is at the local level, that’s the question to start with.”

Personalized learning isn’t an entirely new concept – good teachers always want to give students lessons that are neither too easy nor too hard – but it can be tough to fully achieve. In reality, teachers often find themselves standing in front of a room of 30 students, without the time, tools or training to craft bespoke lessons for each child.

Education technology might offer some solutions. It could help teachers choose, organize and deliver instruction more efficiently. It could provide students with access to information 24/7 through a computer and an Internet connection.

But this will not be cheap or easy. While more schools have been improving classroom Internet connections with federal grant money, about 60 percent of schools said that they found the application process for that money difficult to navigate, in a new poll from Funds for Learning, a consulting company.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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