“When Computers Are Co-Teachers” – The Atlantic on Aspire Public Schools

Aspire Public Schools, a 37-school charter network with schools in California and Tennessee, has been progressively expanding its blended learning implementations for several years with rockstar leadership from Liz Arney, Director of Innovative Learning.

Margaret Ramirez recently published a piece in The Atlantic – When Computers are Co-Teachers – that features Aspire Titan Academy (whose building was once home to a sock factory, we learn). It’s a balanced look at Aspire’s approach to integrating technology its instructional model, with some references to other models across the country. 

If you’re interested in taking a closer look at Aspire’s approach to implementing blended learning, it’s worth taking a look at Aspire’s Blended Learning Handbook which is full of practical guidance from Arney and practitioners.


What is Personalized Learning? A Working Draft.

A little over three years ago when I started as a Program Officer on the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Models (now called Next Generation Learning) team, we were debating whether we should use the terms hybrid or blended to describe the kinds of school models we believed would reshape our educational system. I still remember someone at a conference commenting in defiance of both terms:

“Hybrid sounds like a car and blended sounds like a smoothie.”

It wasn’t that this person disagreed with the idea that combining face-to-face instruction with online learning was a powerful concept; she just was not convinced these were the right terms to describe the innovation that she wanted to ignite.

Evolving Terminology

Over the course of the last three years, we have thought deeply about the terminology we use to describe this nascent field. We reflected on our theory of change, which is rooted in an evidence base that indicates that student-centered, mastery-based learning is an optimal instructional approach. Implicit in our support of blended/hybrid schools was a hypothesis that this approach would lead to more personalized (a.k.a. individualized, customized, differentiated) learning for every student. Unfortunately, we noticed that underlying hypothesis was frequently lost in translation. We found that too often people focused on the technology instead of students’ learning experiences, which missed the point. In response, we reasoned that using a phrase that connoted our student-centered theory of change might mitigate that. And so, after a lot of deliberation, we began to lead with the phrase Personalized Learning earlier this year. In making that choice, we were cognizant of the fact that we might signal a move away from supporting Blended Instruction (as we now call it), which was not our intent. In fact, we are not convinced that Personalized Learning is possible at scale without Blended Instruction, at least not with the level of per pupil spending we currently allocate to public K-12 education.

Phrases De Jure

Reflecting on past movements in education, the issue with the latest phrases De jure is that they start off strong, typically backed by early evidence of success, yet they quickly become overused to the point that they lack real meaning (i.e. data-driven instruction, professional learning communities). The consequence is that the once-powerful idea becomes watered down, and it becomes too easy for everyone to claim that they are implementing it. Inevitably, positive results do not follow, and we then move on to the next big thing. 

To counteract that, we decided to take on two important pieces of work. First, we are working to articulate more clearly the student outcomes we hope these models will achieve, grounded in college readiness and the concept of learning growth (** stay tuned for a forthcoming blog post on that topic). Second, we are seeking to define “Personalized Learning” using nuanced, yet accessible language. With a lot of help from our friends, we developed a working definition and a set of essential attributes. In the spirit of transparency and continuous improvement, we are seeking feedback from you today. Please take a look at the draft language below and let us know what you’d add, delete or change.

What is Personalized Learning? A working draft. 

In a Personalized Learning environment, students’ learning experiences – what they learn, and how, when, and where they learn it – are tailored to their individual developmental needs, skills, and interests. Although where, how, and when they learn might vary according to their needs, students also develop deep connections to each other and their teachers and other adults.

Furthermore, each of the following are essential attributes of a personalized learning model:

  • Learner Profiles: Captures individual skills, gaps, strengths, weaknesses, interests & aspirations of each student.
  • Personal Learning Paths: Each student has learning goals & objectives. Learning experiences are diverse and matched to the individual needs of students.
  • Individual Mastery: Continually assesses student progress against clearly defined standards & goals. Students advance based on demonstrated mastery.
  • Flexible Learning Environment: Multiple instructional delivery approaches that continuously optimize available resources in support of student learning.

Again, we are very interested in your feedback on the language above, as well as other ideas for moving this nascent field forward. Please share thoughts in the comment section below.