Why Communication is Critical for Personalized Learning Success

By Suzanne Alka and Luciano Munoz

It has been said that “Success is led by the power of communication.” We knew that if we wanted to be successful in our implementation of personalized learning in Yuma School District One, we would need to develop a communication plan tailored to different audiences within our community that rang with clarity.

And it did indeed turn out that our approach to communication was critically important, even more so than usual when embarking upon a new initiative, in that we were asking our community to help support our personalized learning initiative through a bond election. Therefore, our messaging had to address the “why” around personalized learning, how it would impact our teachers, students and parents, and the benefits that we envisioned our community reaping. As personalized learning was a new concept for our community, clear communication and the understanding of our constituents was paramount.

We began with internal communications. These conversations were focused on the mission and vision of our district (our “why”), and also, if and how personalized learning fit within those foundational tenets of the district. These discussions happened with school administrators, teachers, district office personnel and board members. After initial discussions, we began to work with Education Elements to determine our readiness for implementation of PL. When the results of our school’s readiness assessments were in, the decision was made for all of our schools to begin PL implementation the following fall.

With that internal decision made, we began to engage and educate our community about PL. There were many community forums. We invited business leaders, parents, staff and teachers to these meetings, and we also took our PL message out to many of the local clubs, such as Rotary and Optimist. There were also several community forums that were held at schools to engage the communities in the surrounding areas.

With the passage of the bond, we were full steam ahead! We continued to work with internal and external constituents to deepen our understanding of PL, and we began to gear up for full implementation. We created videos starring our own students to demonstrate proper care and maintenance of the devices. We created a marketing tag line that was used in a variety of communications – video, billboards, websites, postcards, handbook, etc. – “Personalized Learning is all about ME!”

Our superintendent also created a video for our teachers in which he discussed the process for this first year of our initiative – urging everyone to be “on the PL train.” They did not have to be experts or the conductor, but they needed to at least be passengers, experimenting and actively practicing personalizing learning for their students within their classrooms.

Throughout the year, we continued to sound the “all aboard.” We had ongoing professional development on instructional models, coherent strategies and the core four. Instructional conversations, learning walks and development of a common vocabulary were also taking place on a regular basis. We continued to talk about the importance of teachers and quality instruction, and about how the teacher could not be replaced by technology. In addition to this training and dialogue, schools worked with parents in many ways; from the beginning of the year with our device distribution nights to having PL nights at schools, and participating in Digital Citizenship Week in conjunction with Common Sense Media.

There were many positive outcomes from the communication plan that we executed. Passing our bond election was the most influential, as it allowed us to move forward with all seventeen of our schools. Additionally, the community meetings, site administrator support, and teacher and staff meetings to ensure understanding of the initiative all helped us to build momentum, a culture of innovation and excitement toward our PL journey. The readiness assessment and our work with Education Elements helped focus our path and our message, and our marketing efforts, including billboards, helped spread that message throughout our community. The interactions that occurred with our community really helped to unite us in our efforts. Additionally, collaboration around planning and instruction increased tremendously among teachers, instructional coaches, administrators and other staff due to the PL initiative.

Personalized learning often comes with a wealth of new content and devices, and one of the main lessons we learned was that this can sometimes be overwhelming for teachers trying to incorporate all those various components into classroom and instructional practice. In hindsight, although it might have been easier to start smaller, we also may not have benefitted as much from the professional learning that took place with one another regarding the use of technology in a PL classroom, as well as with the new content and apps that were available. Additionally, the palpable sense of excitement and innovation may not have thrived to the extent that it has.

Another consideration in evaluating our communication that first year is that we should have spent more time refining and ensuring consistency in our messaging across the district once the devices were deployed and the initiative was being implemented. Little confusions and misunderstandings can have an unexpectedly large impact on the beginning of an initiative.

We are continuing to refine our communication outreach regarding PL through video advertising to prospective teachers, as well as through video advertisements in our local theaters. We have also begun to utilize geofencing to make our successful PL programs known to prospective parents.

Milton Erickson once said “The effectiveness of communication is not defined by the communication, but by the response.” This quote has reassured us that our communication was effective, in that our community’s response for our bond was supported. The purpose of the bond was not solely to implement personalized learning, but it was an important element that directly impacts instruction and learning in our district. We are thankful for our community’s support of this initiative, and it has paid dividends–our test scores continue to rise after only two years of implementation. Our “All Aboard” call for PL was heard and the positive response was loud and clear.

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Suzanne Alka and Luciano Munoz are the Associate Superintendent for Academic Support Services and Executive Director for Human Resources, respectively, at Yuma Elementary School District One. Follow them on Twitter: @YumaDistrict1.

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