The Platform Revolution That Will Power Personalized Learning

“We view scale as positive,” said Phil Regier, Dean for Educational Initiatives at Arizona State University (ASU). “We’re going to use scale to get better. Digital learning tends to be scale games. As you get bigger you can make the technology better.”

Speaking on a Gates Foundation podcast, Regier noted the Global Freshman Academy, an online learning partnership with edX as an example of bigger is better. It allows learners to take open classes anytime and only pay after passing a class. “The math class is fantastic. The bigger it gets the better it gets,” said Regier.

The adaptive courseware adjusts to each learner and collects thousands of data points that create a network effect. “If we have 2,000 students we can improve faster than if 150 students take a course,” added Regier. “The more students I have taking an adaptive course the better the course will be, and the faster and more efficiently students will learn–and learn more skills more deeply.”

Leveraging digital learning, Regier sees the emergence of several very large institutions (what ASU President Michael Crow calls national service universities) that can serve more than 200,000 learners. Crow has his sights set on “Infinitely Scalable Learning” but admits that “we don’t know exactly how it will work, but we do know that everyone needs to learn how to learn, how to solve problems and how to adapt.”

Platform Dreams of Scaled K-12 Impact

There are a few early examples of ambitious K-12 efforts to build national platform networks. The four most interesting include:

  1. Summit Learning: Now powered by CZI, it will soon add a new cohort of partner schools to the 100 currently using the Summit platform.
  2. Cortex: Born at Brooklyn LAB, it is now used across Rhode Island. Like Summit, it’s another example of moving from a managed network to a platform network to achieve broader impact.
  3. New Tech Network: NTN supports 200 PBL schools nationwide with Echo, an LMS designed to support integrated project-based learning.
  4. AltSchool: Its founders developed a small network of micro-elementary schools before initiating a network of partner schools (raising a boatload of money and hiring some smart people).

Even historically traditional networks like KIPP have gone digital, developed a shared curriculum and are morphing into a network of managed platform networks.

Like Project Lead The Way (PLTW), college readiness system AVID just partnered with Canvas to digitize program delivery. The curriculum providers are looking for a little of the network effect that ASU’s Regier experienced.

Twenty months ago we compiled a list of what teachers and EdLeaders wanted from K-12 learning platforms. They wanted tools that:

  • Power and track personal learning plans;
  • Manage assignments and dynamic grouping;
  • Support development of standards-aligned projects;
  • Make it easy to combine proprietary, open, district and teacher-developed content;
  • Combine formative assessments in a standards-based gradebook;
  • Incorporate social, collaborative, productivity and presentation tools;
  • Integrate with other systems and provide single sign-on for lots of apps; and
  • Connect students, parents and teachers anywhere on any device.

The best platforms aren’t great at any of these features yet but they’re getting better. Next-gen platforms will help teacher teams transform education after eight advances in learning science, technology and sector standards power personal learning journeys. Next-gen platforms will be easy to configure for specific learning and school models, will gather data from many learning and context sources and will support a community of teachers and learners.

1. Feedback. “Deciding what to learn, making a connection with the subject and gathering feedback on your progress are all keys to learning anything,” said Ulrich Boser, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. K-12 students in the U.S. could use less standardized testing and more frequent and valuable feedback–daily feedback on writing and problem solving and weekly reflections on collaboration, work habits and project management skills. Automated and biometric feedback will help, but so will simple survey and feedback systems tracked over time. Frequent presentation and publication of work to external audiences keep standards of quality real and dynamic.

2. Interoperability. Most U.S. students benefit from multiple forms of instructional feedback every week, but little of it is delivered in a consistent fashion and easy to combine. Technology vendors will need to allow schools to access their data and to share it with other vendors in common frameworks (the same way everyone in logistics agreed to use standard shipping containers).

In addition to agreements on standards, artificial intelligence will help spot correlation between various forms of assessment and feedback by analyzing big (anonymized) data sets of keystroke data. Super gradebooks will automatically combine many different kinds of formative feedback into a mastery tracker and surface it with simple data visualizations. This important real-time information, and the recommendation engines they power, will help inform learners and teachers co-construct and manage personalized learning journeys.

3. Scheduling. Far from isolating, these journeys will be highly social–just not with the same 30 students all day. Many learners will participate on project teams, benefit from tutoring in a skill group, connect with other learners around the world and participate in arts, culture, work and service learning experiences in the community. Dynamic scheduling (and a network of self-driving vehicles) will help manage complex schedules. With locational awareness, platforms will spot real time learning opportunities (e.g., you’ll pass the museum which has an exhibit that would be helpful for your project).

4. Motivation. Young (and old) people are motivated by different experiences and are drawn to different interests. Learning and behavioral science will continue to unlock lessons of human performance, particularly motivational profiles yielding sequences that produce persistence and performance. Game-based features will motivate some (but not all) learners.

5. Portability. Personalized and competency-based learning (in K-12 and for life) will be unlocked by comprehensive learner profiles. Those are most likely to be made portable using blockchain, a secure and distributed learning ledger.

We think a student data backpack, a new expanded official digital transcript, will include more valuable information for teachers on day one at a new school. Beyond that we see expanded parent/learner managed portable profiles as key to unlocking the potential of anywhere anytime learning. Learners and guardians will have the ability to share portions of the profile with tutors, after school programs, summer school and online providers.

6. UI. Breakthroughs in user interface–voice, gesture, and eye–will be transformative to learning. After Elon Musk’s new company Neuralink figures out how to make a direct connection we’ll be able to control computers with our minds.

7. SEL Supports. Productive ways to help young people develop self-management and social awareness will be a breakthrough. We see SEL being integrated across the curriculum in a growing number of schools. Biosensors, feedback systems and smart nudges are likely to be part of smart social-emotional learning (SEL) systems.

8. Assistive. The advent of mobile and touch technology was a godsend for youth with special needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum. Advances in UI, translation, text to voice, voice to text and SEL supports will aid special needs students.

With incremental advances in these categories, platforms will make it easier for teacher teams to create powerful learning sequences for and with youth.

While it’s currently just a headache to have more students enrolled in a blended learning experience, as Phil Regier noted, the more learners in a digital experience, the better the opportunity to learn about how to make it better. Platforms will bring network effects to education.

For more on platform networks, see:

This blog is part of a multi-year campaign studying networks and their effect on education and transformation. Our work will culminate in a book publishing in 2018. Learn more and join the conversation using #NetworkEffect.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Jordan Schleider

Platform revolution is a powerful approach to encourage personalized learning. Thanks for publishing very informative content on personalized learning.

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