AURORA | In middle school, Junior Alvarado struggled with multiplication and earned poor grades in math, so when he started his freshman year at Washington Leadership Academy, a charter school in the nation’s capital, he fretted that he would lag behind.
But his teachers used technology to identify his weak spots, customized a learning plan just for him and coached him through it. As Alvarado started sophomore geometry this month, he was more confident in his skills.
“For me personalized learning is having classes set at your level,” Alvarado, 15, said in between lessons. “They explain the problem step by step, it wouldn’t be as fast, it will be at your pace.”
As schools struggle to raise high school graduation rates and close the persistent achievement gap for minority and low-income students, many educators tout digital technology in the classroom as a way forward. But experts caution that this approach still needs more scrutiny and warn schools and parents against being overly reliant on computers.
The use of technology in schools is part of a broader concept of personalized learning that has been gaining popularity in recent years. It’s a philosophy centered around the interests and needs of each individual child as opposed to universal standards. Other features include flexible learning environments, customized education paths and letting students have a say in what and how they want to learn.
At Aurora Public Schools, the district works to integrate technology into classrooms as part of a student-centered learning approach.
Instead of simply substituting electronic worksheets for paper ones, APS trains teachers to help them integrate new technologies into their traditional teaching methods to help enhance the experience, said Ben Wilkoff, program director for personalized learning.
“The technology changes but the fundamentals of learning [do not]. (Technology) is a tool for engaging kids,” Wilkoff said. “The students are at the center of the vision, and we want to support them with the best environment, both physically and digitally. … Kids are living in a world of digital access. It doesn’t make sense to shut that down when they enter the classroom.”
In teacher Gwynn Moore’s fourth-grade class at Aurora Frontier P-8, students rotate through various stations that use both high-tech learning tools and traditional materials. One section has students reading books to help them learn about historical figures, one uses Google Classroom to work on projects and another station uses a computer game to teach kids how to read a map.
“You can’t teach technology for the sake of teaching technology,” Moore said. “Instead it’s about learning how to use the tools available for purposeful learning.”
At Elkhart Elementary School in APS, third- through fifth-grade students all have access to Google Chromebooks which they can take home from school. The homework programs are research-based and give students feedback and tutorials as they complete assignments, adjusting materials to meet them at their level, said APS spokesman Corey Christiansen.
“Allowing students to have individual Chromebooks is also a significant benefit to teachers. The Chromebook program offers quality practice time for students outside of the classroom,” Christiansen said. “This extra time helps Elkhart teachers spend more time working directly with students. It also frees up time that allows teachers to plan together as well as model lessons for other teachers.”
Cherry Creek School District has worked to supply schools with Chromebooks and is focusing on increasing access to tablet devices. While technology changes, the core principles of providing students with pathways to learning is the constant, said Jay Vean, instructional facilitator for digital learning.
“The technology isn’t driving this. It’s more about the possibilities for learning and instruction. We encourage the teachers and the institutional leadership to reinvent instruction,” Vean said.
It isn’t enough to teach a student to be able to answer a questions by Googling the answer, Vean said. It’s about working with them to learn how to use the tools available to them to advance their learning.
Still, most researchers say it is too early to tell if personalized learning works better than traditional teaching.
A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that personalized learning produced modest improvements: a 3-percentile increase in math and a smaller, statistically insignificant increase for reading compared with schools that used more traditional approaches. Some students also complained that collaboration with classmates suffered because everybody was working on a different task.
“I would not advise for everybody to drop what they are doing and adopt personalized learning,” said John Pane, a co-author of the report. “A more cautious approach is necessary.”
The new opportunities also pose new challenges. Pediatricians warn that too much screen time can come at the expense of face-to-face social interaction, hands-on exploration and physical activity. Some studies also have shown that students may learn better from books than from computer screens, while another found that keeping children away from computers for five days in a row improved their emotional intelligence.
Some teachers are skeptical. Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the Badass Teachers Association, an education advocacy group, agrees that technology has its merits, but insists that no computer or software should ever replace the personal touch, motivation and inspiration teachers give their students.
“That interaction and that human element is very important when children learn,” Kilfoyle said.
— Staff writer Ramsey Scott contributed to this report.