Sunday, January 31, 2016

Practical Applications to Individualize and Personalize Learning

Possibly one of the most important shifts needed in schools is to provide individualized and personalized learning experiences to students. Learning has fundamentally changed with the evolution of the Internet and other technologies that allow for ubiquitous access to information and knowledge. Digital leadership focuses on transforming learning environments through online course offerings (synchronous and asynchronous), independent studies, and the use of OpenCourseWare to provide students with continuous options to learn anytime, anywhere, and about anything. 

Infusing online learning opportunities should be a given in a digital world. There is no excuse not to secure funds to better meet the needs of all learners or those with specialized interests. States that do not have their own online course consortia can become a member of the VHS Collaborative or use Educere (K-12 solution). Either pathway to online courses opens up an existing course catalog to hundreds of additional niche courses that cater to specific student interests. In the case of the VHS Collaborative, it offers more than 200 courses taught by certified teachers, including virtually every Advanced Placement course accredited by the College Board. High school leaders can make these available to students to take on their own time in addition to the courses they take at their home schools. They can also insert them into their existing class schedules in lieu of electives. Either way, the result is expanded course offerings and learning opportunities for students to personalize and individualize their educational experience. 

One of the most cost-effective means to create a more personalized and individualized learning experience for students is through the use of OpenCourseWare (OCW) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Perhaps one day, the twenty-first century will be remembered as the time when knowledge became available to everyone for free. Pioneers in open learning like Wikipedia have harnessed the collective intellect of the planet “to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.” 

Prestigious centers of learning are making good use of the Internet’s power to share knowledge in the form of OCW. OCW can best be defined as high-quality digital publications created by leading American universities that are organized as courses of study, offered free of charge, and delivered via the Internet. OCW courses are available under open licenses, such as Creative Commons. These courses allow for the personalization of studies as students explore topics of their choosing. 

The Independent OpenCourseWare Study (IOCS) that I co-created with Julie Meehan when I was principal at New Milford High School represents an uncommon learning experience for secondary students that allows them to fully utilize OCW to pursue learning that focuses on their passions, interests, and career aspirations. IOCS is aligned to Common Core, ISTE's National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS•S), and state technology curriculum standards as well as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework. IOCS students choose from an array of OCW offerings from such schools as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard, Yale, University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, to name a few, and apply their learning to earn high school credit.  The IOCS experience is accessed through the IOCS website, which contains links to OCW offerings that are constantly updated. The site also provides an overview of the program, the IOCS Rubric, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), and a Google form through which students register for courses. Other documents, like periodic check-in forms, are also available on the site. 

Students choose an OCW course (or part of a course) from an approved, accredited university through the IOCS website. Using the IOCS Google registration form embedded in the site, they register for their course by identifying the institution, course number, and title. Sometimes, if the course is extensive or very advanced, students may decide to complete only certain parts of that course, in which case they identify what part(s) they agree to complete at the outset. This is taken into account when they are assessed for their work. 

Once they choose their OCW course, students engage in the activities provided by that particular unit of study. Learning activities vary widely from institution to institution and within disciplines, but coursework usually consists of one or more of the following: course lectures, which can be video presentations or texts; learning activities like experiments or open-ended questions; demonstrations; and interim and final assessments. Students apply themselves to these activities over the course of a high school marking period. 

Students receive individualized mentoring as they progress through their OCW course. Highly motivated, gifted students who have found their “perfect” course may need little guidance, while others may benefit from varying degrees of structuring and advice along the way. IOCS mentors check in with students on a regular basis to gauge the level of mentoring intervention needed. In all cases, the advanced content and high expectations inherent in the coursework provide students with a glimpse into the demands that college poses and help them prepare for their higher education. 

Students combine their creativity with their newfound knowledge to synthesize a unique product that demonstrates and applies the new knowledge and skills they gained from the OCW. The aim is that students go beyond a static PowerPoint presentation laden with mere text and pictures and produce an actual product, whether it is the demonstration of a new skill, the creation of a physical model, the designing and conducting of an experiment, the formulation of a theory, or some other creative way to show what they’ve learned (see the IOCS Rubric). 

The culminating IOCS experience for our students was a five to seven-minute exposition of learning in front of faculty and IOCS peers. The work was assessed according to the IOCS Rubric. By developing a framework for the advanced learning opportunities that OCW promises, schools will enable gifted and motivated students to progress beyond the scope of their traditional secondary curriculum. 


  1. Eric,

    This is an excellent example of how to establish partnerships and harness technology today to meet the needs of Gen Z students. This may threaten a number of educators who feel students aren't ready for such independence or fear the loss of teaching positions; however, I see it as a way to bring in innovative practices to enhance teaching and learning experiences. Thanks for providing many details that describe what to do and how to do it.

    Be Great,


    1. Thanks Dwight! If you need any detailed info on IOCS call or email me.

  2. Excellent suggestions on how to engage students during the school day. In my small rural school the students have limited access to electives and then fitting the few we have into their schedules is even more limited. These sites allow for the individualization of instruction for all students. Many times students need prerequisite courses like psychology, sociology and anatomy, for programs they are entering in college. These are often not available in rural high schools. Sometimes students can find an early college course to fulfill these prerequisites, but most students leave their communities with little to no experience in these areas, which places them behind the mark when they enter college. Thankfully the present is catching up to the needs of the students of the future.
    The other disadvantage of some online coursework is that it is very expensive. Our school has chosen not to buy into a number of different virtual high schools because we know that the students and community can not afford the extra cost. I do agree that the communities need to focus more on what technology our students need available to them as some of us still do not even have one to one computers or even internet access in all students homes.

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