Digital tools can help streamline the process of assessing students, identifying perceived student skill gaps and strengths, and prescribing appropriate resources (via algorithms) to help students “fill” those gaps or extend learning. These forms of adaptive learning and individualized learning efficiently curate resources for each student in a matter of seconds, versus the time and energy a teacher would spend to complete the process manually and search for appropriate materials. These digital tools also allow for students to continue learning and make progress at anytime and anyplace, not just in a classroom or at school.
These tools, however, can present a conundrum for teachers and students with respect to time management and how minutes during the school day are utilized. But let’s not confuse these tools and their intentions with digital practice or homework assignments. David Wees and others have offered criticisms and drawbacks of such digital practice, which is presumably taking place outside of the school day to practice or apply what was learned during the day’s lesson. This conundrum is about taking instructional time during the school day for adaptive and individualized learning.
Michael Fenton gave an impassioned ignite talk in 2014 on this issue, cautioning us to resist the temptation of connecting students to devices in the classroom for consumption in an isolated environment and, instead, using classroom technology to promote collaboration, conversation, and creativity.
Here are some questions to ensure we using these digital tools for adaptive learning and individualized learning in the most productive ways:
- Are students asked to keep a written record (i.e. math notebook/math journal) as they progress through assignments/lessons that can be referred to later?
- What opportunities does the student have to set goals, identify strengths, identify areas of challenge, and reflect on their learning when engaging with these tools?
- What opportunities do students have to create something that demonstrates their learning from the assignments/lessons they complete?
- What role does the teacher play as students are actively completing assignments/lessons? How does formative assessment look in this setting?
- What peer-to-peer or student-to-teacher conversations about learning are taking place while completing these assignments/lessons?
- How does the content of the digital assignments/lessons connect with the class learning goals and current unit of study?
- Even though a digital dashboard may show that students have successfully completed a series of assignments/lessons how do we know they learned anything? How do we know what misconceptions still exist and what questions they still have?
This isn’t meant to be a repudiation of these adaptive learning and individualized learning tools. After all, they offer a utility that schools that schools and teachers are seeking, especially when students are not performing at grade level or need additional challenge to stay engaged; moreover, these resources are consistent with the “on demand” and customizable nature of content we enjoy in many aspects of our lives. These tools can serve as valuable assets to student learning, as long as we use them in conjunction with teachers and human-to-human interactions, not in place of them. This is a question about balance and ensuring the human relationships and interactions that are at the heart of dynamic learning environments are never replaced by artificial intelligence algorithms and data dashboards.