In Student Hands: My, How Times Have Changed!

How technology drives personalized learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Rachel Tustin

Editor’s Note: Over the past sixteen years, classrooms have seen a world of change. This post takes the long view, examining classroom practices from the perspective of a veteran educator.

CREDIT Stackup image.pngIf you walked into my classroom more than a decade ago, students would have been in awe just to have more than one computer in the classroom. Their favorite days were the ones when we got a turn in the computer lab to work on the desktops.

The software wasn’t exciting, mostly just tasks such as composing essays, math practice, or occasionally working on a simulation that had to be run off the hard drive. My students didn’t have cell phones, tablets, or laptops at home.

Times have certainly changed.

Our students are now avid consumers in the business of technology. Our children just don’t play video games alone.

Instead, they are often playing online with other children across the country and around the world. Many of the students in our classrooms have smartphones and can access the Internet anytime and anyplace. For the first time, we are teaching children who are technology natives. As a result, we have to change how we teach in schools.

For perhaps the first time in history, teachers can easily create and facilitate personalized learning paths for their students.

The revolution of education towards personalized learning begins with putting devices into student’s hands. I have been fortunate to teach in an urban district where there has been immense investments of capital toward transforming schools to 1-to-1 computing. It began by putting laptop carts in classrooms, and has since moved on to purchasing Chromebooks for every child.

While we still keep paper notebooks, the vast majority of my lessons and assignments live entirely online.

Rural districts in my state, however, have not been so fortunate.

In these districts, where funds are tight, they have been resourceful in spending money updating their networks and expanding their bandwidth as they adopt Bring Your Device (BYOD) policies. Rather than ban cell phones and other devices, BYOD districts adopting these policies allow students to bring a device and access their Internet when on campus. My nephew lives in a rural area and only has access to computers and the Internet in his classroom because his parents purchased him a Chromebook for classes.

With a device in every student’s hand in the classroom, educators can now use virtual classrooms to create personalized learning experiences for each student. A virtual classroom in its simplest terms is a website a teacher uses to “host” their class online, so students have access to information anytime, anywhere. Textbook publishers like Pearson have turned from just making a PDF of their textbook available online to creating virtual classrooms teachers can use to create assignments, give tests, and give students access to additional multimedia tools. This model is far more appealing to my students than paper textbooks.

If you gave my students a choice, most would opt for completing work on the computer every time. For some, it is because technology is more comfortable to them than paper and pencil. Others struggle with organization, and like having it all organized for them to locate in the virtual classroom. For myself, using a virtual classroom platform allows me to personalize learning for students by creating different groups, and even easily translating materials into other languages.

Building a Classroom Online

In recent years, I have had the luxury of using one of the more sophisticated virtual classroom platforms for teachers. Our school works with Summit Charter Schools, who using their partnership with Facebook and developed a sophisticated personalized learning platform being implemented in schools across the country. Their platform allows me to create and assess personalized learning paths for the students all within a single program. Within the platform I can create “playlists” of content for their students pulling resources from wherever I wish.

Sometimes I pull content from YouTube, or I can link multimedia from the Pearson online textbook. When I need to, I can create my own resources using any website or app I please. Unlike other platforms, I am not limited to a single publisher. When a student takes a test, the test is randomized so that while students are taking equivalent exams, no two tests are identical.

So within my classroom, I am never concerned that students will cheat on an exam because no two tests are alike. My students and I have freedom to adjust the pace as the year goes on, letting them move faster or slower as needed through the material.

There are many other platforms available for teachers.

Some prefer Edmodo because it is designed to look and function like the interface on Facebook. Teachers can post materials, assessments, and discussion questions to their page. Students simply have to look in the thread to find what they need.

In our district we also use Google Classroom, which is also free and works in the same way. Students log in and see the main thread of items for their course. You can post discussion questions, assignments, or even multimedia for student’s access. Google also allows teachers to integrate Google Forms to administer assessments via the Google Classroom for students.

Social media can also be a powerful tool to create a simple virtual classroom experience for students.

In my classroom, I often use Twitter as an educational tool. We have discussions across class periods using hashtags to share information and ideas. Some of my colleagues do the same using Instagram.

Over time, programmers have realized the lucrative business of creating social media tools for teachers and students. More and more, virtual classroom platforms are being designed to imitate social media.

The App-Driven Revolution in Personalized Learning

In the beginning, I wasn’t a fan of apps.

I avoided adding them to my phone, and scolded students who tried to add them to their Chromebooks. In my head I associated apps with gaming, and it took me a while to wrap my mind around them being anything else. It was actually a colleague who convinced me to explore the apps.

In a meeting I listened to them talk about how they used the app Blendspace to create personalized learning, and I could mentally feel my mindset shift. This app allows teachers to integrate videos, websites, and assessments easily into a lesson.

You can personalize learning by creating different groups, and customize the lessons accordingly.

Bookwidgets is a similar app that offers some more sophisticated options for creating lessons, such as the ability to create interactive crossword puzzles and extra bells and whistles for presentations. These apps are a great tool when I work with new teachers who may not be experienced at using technology in education because they are easy to use and share with students.

For teachers who want to personalize learning without necessarily building whole modules online, there are apps such as Stackup. This app, when installed on a Chromebook, allows teachers to assign and track student reading online. Teachers can personalize reading based on their content area and the different abilities in their classroom.

Once students have completed their required reading, teachers can use free apps such as Socrative to engage different groups of students in interactive games or even assess learning based on student’s personalized learning path. For my teachers who are just starting out in personalized learning, it is an easy way to track what their students are working on in the digital world.

If your students are like mine, while they are digital natives they are organizationally challenged. I have embraced the mindset now that “There is an app for that too!” The app Flextime Manager allows teachers to create lists of activities students are allowed to work on during personalized learning time based on their content areas.

Students, in turn, get personalized learning by having a choice of what activities they complete. The app itself tracks what students work on, how much time they spend on each activity, etc. to help the teacher manage personalized learning more efficiently in their classroom.

Technology has placed in classrooms the great opportunity to personalize learning for students.

No longer are teachers and districts without the resources to engage the diverse population of technology natives sitting in front of them. Instead, technology has provided resources for every school budget to personalize learning for students.

For perhaps the first time in history, teachers can easily create and facilitate personalized learning paths for their students.

Our educational system now as the tools to allow students to grow by catering to their interests and pace needed. Personalized learning can transform education in such a way that when it comes to learning, there will genuinely be no limits on our students.

Rachel Tustin, Ph.D., is a veteran science educator, having taught for more than sixteen years in public and private K-12 education, and eight years of teaching English composition at the university level. She has served as both a technology and new teacher mentor in Richland School District 2. Her passion is teaching environmental science, for which she has been recognized by the South Carolina Aquarium, Richland County Conservation Association, and Gills Creek Watershed Association.

  • mgozaydin


    Rachel, Thanks for the info .
    I understand that PL means
    Software students follow recognise the way students behaves, his weaknesses, his strong points then software realine itself according to the habits of the students .
    Here I understand you do what software supposed to do .
    Am I right ? Your approach is more understandable . Thanks .

  • Dr. Rachel Tustin


    Yes, in general personal learning software is designed to recognize a students strengths and weakness to allow for more personalized learning. However, there is a huge degree of levels of sophistication in personalized learning software. Some of it, like the platform used by Summit Learning is designed more so teachers can easily see strengths and weaknesses, while a student has the free to progress through the material at their own pace. Other platforms, namely math platforms, will actually do regular diagnostic exams and then assign a student the models they need based on that diagnostic information.

  • Dr. Rachel Tustin


    Remember, you can create personal learning that isn’t totally technology dependent. For example, if you create some version of a flipped classroom you can personalize learning. You can use tools such as Blendspace to essentially deliver the vast majority of your direct instruction. That leaves you free to break the class into groups, and individualize instruction more. In a way, it is essentially differentiation with technological assistance.

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