Not All Tech Use is Created Equal: Addressing Equity in Personalized Learning

Photo Credit: Joshua Sortino

Photo Credit: Joshua Sortino

By Elizabeth LeBlanc and Dr. Christopher Harrington

“The future is already here — it's just not evenly distributed” - William Gibson

We’ve all heard the quote by science fiction author William Gibson, but perhaps nowhere is it more appropriate than when applied to education. The use of digital learning has increased in K-12 education settings across the nation, but many schools and districts are struggling to bring the transformative potential of technology to every student. In our latest research project, The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning, the Institute for Teaching and Leading (i4tl) studied over 60 schools and districts that have made the commitment to personalized learning in an effort to better understand the best practices as well as challenges of extending the promise of digital learning to every child. 

In today’s  K-12 educational landscape, access to digital learning technology is critical to full participation in academic success, career readiness, and college preparedness; however, large disparities still remain across geographic, socioeconomic and racial lines, creating what has become known as the “digital divide.” Efforts to bridge the digital divide often focus on questions of equitable access to digital tools, resources, and services. However, as our friends at Digital Promise have noted, there are significant differences in how technology is integrated, both in schools and in homes, across socioeconomic lines. In schools serving predominantly low-income students and families, digital learning is most often used to support “skill-and-drill” exercises that reinforce basic concepts and memorization rather than being used in truly transformative ways that support 21st century learning and higher-order thinking skills. This inequity in the leveraging of digital learning technologies has lead to what has been called the ‘second digital divide.’

In our own research into the use of digital learning to transform and personalize instructional practice to reach every student, technology quickly emerged  an early indicator of change to come and was one of the first areas of investment for the participating schools. More than 9 in every 10 (92%) questionnaire respondents reported “great” impact to their programming through changes and resource allocation in the area of technology, with another 7% of respondents characterizing these changes as having “moderate” impact on their programming. 

This study revealed correlations between these initial investments in technology and increased changes to the teaching and learning process in the classroom as reported by both teachers and administrators. These instructional shifts were most evident in the two areas: 

  1. In the systemic, consistent, meaningful of use of student data to support instructional decision-making 

  2. In the use of formal established learning progressions

Both are key characteristics of building a competency-based, personalized learning model. While schools making these kinds of instructional shifts did not report higher-than-average (for this study) investments in either number of devices for students or teachers, Internet access, or bandwidth, they did report higher-than-average investment in other areas. These schools tended to be further along in their program growth and to have a clearly developed and articulated vision for transformational teaching and learning.  When schools or districts reported using both a LMS and strong data practices, their ability to implement changes to the teaching and learning process that incorporates the tenets of personalized learning increased in all areas, as seen in the chart below.


Digital Content and Learner Management: 

The use of a LMS or similar learning platform in schools is often a key indicator of its level of technology use in the teaching and learning process. Leveraging a LMS to organize and deliver content at scale also enables faculty to create digital components of their face-to-face courses to supplement or potentially blend instruction. It means that students may have access to course content and resources 24 hours per day, seven days per week. This kind of ubiquitous access, when used intentionally across schools and districts, serves as a foundation for blended and personalized learning models.

Schools and districts using a LMS or digital learning platform in which to build or host the content designed for students reported higher levels of change in their teaching and learning processes. In particular, LMS use correlated positively with an 8% rise in the use of formal learning progressions to a “great” extent, a 10% increase in the incorporation of student voice and choice to a “great” extent, and a 12% increase in the use of instructional strategies that include a range of learning formats to a “great” extent. 

Use of Data Systems:

The use of data to monitor student progress towards mastery was the lowest-growth area thus far among the schools and districts studied. Not surprisingly, this area scored strongest in our research among schools that have greater program longevity. Once the tools are in place and instructional staff gains familiarity with them, there is a move to make student progress data more accessible/usable in the classroom. Because the ability to customize and choose content based on unique student needs and goals is central to achieving a fully personalized learning environment, it seems likely that these areas will be the next to see growth and movement as school programs continue to develop. 

Similarly, schools and districts that invested in user-friendly platforms to support the frequent and ongoing use of student data reported higher use of formal learning progressions with an 18% increase in to a “great” extent responses, a 17% increase in the use of strategies incorporating student voice and choice to a “great” extent, and a 22% increase in the use of instructional strategies that include a range of learning formats to a “great” extent.

***Note: The research study The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning was published by the Institute for Teaching and Leading in partnership with Edgenuity, Inc. and EdSurge, Inc

About the Authors: 

Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading. She also serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning for Taos Academy Charter School, an innovative blended learning school in northern New Mexico. Elizabeth has 15 years of experience in the design and implementation of high-quality, effective programming. With an MA in Educational Technology and Curriculum Design, Elizabeth works to coach and support teachers engaging in digital and personalized learning. Elizabeth was recently named to the NM Secretary of Education’s Teacher Advisory and was awarded the 2019 NMSTE “Making IT Happen!” award. Elizabeth has co-authored several education research projects, contributed book chapters, and written articles on brain science, whole child instruction, and blended learning. 

Dr. Christopher Harrington, the founder of the Institute for Teaching and Leading, has long served on the forefront of innovative education. Currently a professor atImmaculata University, Chris specializes in assembling and inspiring great work from great teams. In his previous positions as President of eLearn Institute, Inc. and CEO of Harrington Education Associates, Dr. Harrington assisted dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended and online learning programs, including the nationally recognized Quakertown Community School District where he served as Director of Virtual Education Services. Chris works with multiple state and national groups in the field of education, includingiNACOL and the Colorado Department of Education. Dr. Harrington recently joined the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute team as their Director.