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It's Personal! Using an LMS to Help Students Become Masters of Their Own Learning

One district’s discovery of what personal learning is, and is not.

The article below appeared on March 29th in Scholastic Administrator. The author, Andrea Winters, is director of learning technology at Clear Creek Independent School District in League City, Texas.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned by immersing ourselves in 21st-century learning, it’s that there is a big difference between “personalized” and “personal” learning. It’s a small distinction, but as we found here at Clear Creek Independent School District, it’s an important one.

We’ve always worked to encourage students to take ownership of their learning, but in 2015 we formalized that approach when we incorporated the concept of personalized learning into our new strategic plan. As we defined it, personalized learning is an academic model offering flexible pathways for students to progress toward graduation in ways that are personally meaningful.

We were very excited about this new direction, but something interesting happened when we began rolling it out. Teachers and instructional technologists—professionals already burdened by the need to create fresh, relevant, standards-based material on a regular basis—began to panic. Telling them we were going to “personalize” learning for students made it sound like we wanted multiple lesson plans for students, and in some cases, multiple lesson plans for the same student. To them, “personalized” learning meant they were expected to create one lesson plan for every student—or 30 total plans for a 30-pupil class!

In hindsight this interpretation makes sense. The suffix “-ized” brought with it the notion that something was being done to or for people. But we didn’t want teachers to view this as something they had to do for their students. After all, the ownership of personal learning doesn’t lie with the teacher. It rests with the individual students. It’s the students who have to make the choices and take responsibility for those selections and the say they have in their own learning. We simply wanted to empower teachers to be better facilitators of that learning.

So for this student-centric learning approach to really work we knew that we had to drop that suffix and instead call it “personal learning.” Further, we knew that changing that one word alone wouldn’t be enough. We had to provide teachers with the training and the tools they’d need to be successful.

Using Technology to Help

Of course, administering and orchestrating personal learning can’t be done effectively without technology. After reviewing 15 different learning management systems, in May 2015 we selected theitslearning teaching and learning platform and immediately began implementation. From the beginning we knew this was the right system for us because of its “one-stop” structure to house and manage functions for creating and delivering courses, assessments, standards management, attendance, grades, and more. This platform works with everyone in our school system—helping us to work smart, collaborate, and communicate—all in one interface.

For example, our teachers can make, receive, grade, and collaborate on assignments with their students. Teachers, students, and even parents have access (as appropriate) to thousands of course materials and assignments we’ve loaded into our repository. We’re even working with Houston Independent School District, looking at ways to share their learning objects. Our teachers can also upload photos, videos, Scratch projects, Prezi presentations, and many other types of media and materials. We like the system’s integrated voice and audio capabilities; especially for our early learners, just being able to sit down and talk about what they learned serves as an invaluable personal learning tool.

We tell teachers that if students want to use a different method to express their knowledge and demonstrate mastery upon completion of a learning unit, let them! Perhaps the student is more comfortable doing a speech or creating a summary. It could be a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, or maybe it’s a poster or a diorama. We even had one student who wanted to code his presentation on Scratch!

Whatever the format, we want students to have the freedom to make it personal—to be creative and insightful in ways those traditional, paper-based tests and quizzes don’t allow. We now are able to routinely give them a variety of options to choose from, but ultimately the sky’s the limit. We want to let students exercise their voice and personal choice in how they engage in their learning, because it’s the only way they’ll own it. It’s personal and it’s learning.

Andrea Winters is director of learning technology at Clear Creek Independent School District in League City, Texas. The district serves more than 40,000 students, 3,000 teachers, and 13 city municipalities. Winters supervises 28 campus technology integration specialists and trains teachers, staff, and students to use technology to enhance learning.

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