It's Personal

The Low-Tech Future of the Future of Learning

by Asher Lehrer-Small

Illustration by Alana Baer

published March 27, 2020

At Springfield High School in Southern Vermont, the entryway stairs not only lead students inside the school building—they serve as a reminder that learning can happen beyond the school walls. Five learning options are painted on the face of the stairs in bright white block lettering: “work-based learning,” “early college,” “dual enrollment,” “online learning,” and “River Valley Technical Center.”

These are the “flexible pathways” that students at Springfield High can pursue as they work toward high school graduation. They can receive credits through working at jobs and internships. They can take courses at local public colleges and universities, or pursue career preparatory learning at their local technical center. “The challenge is, how do we work to ensure an education for all students that’s engaging, rigorous, and relevant?” Patty Davenport, Multiple Pathways Coordinator at Springfield High, told the College Hill Independent.

Springfield’s diverse options for students come as a result of Vermont’s 2013 Flexible Pathway Initiative, which asks all Vermont public high schools to offer their students the same learning options that Springfield boasts on its entryway steps. The move comes as a part of a broader effort in the state to make learning more relevant and engaging to students, and falls under a wider education reform movement known as “personalized learning” (PL).

Vermont is not alone in its personalization push. As a reform agenda, PL has become increasingly widespread in schools and districts across the country. Education leaders are recognizing that their students have a diverse array of needs, interests, and learning styles that traditional classrooms are often unequipped to adequately handle. They have begun to turn to PL in hopes of flipping the educational paradigm from a “one-size-fits-all” model to a model prepared to meet individual students’ needs. In the past ten years, PL has gone from a fringe idea to an educational priority for thousands of schools. Nine out of ten districts polled said they were investing in devices, software, or professional development to support PL. These changes hold promise: initial studies suggest that students at PL schools make faster test score gains than their counterparts at non-PL schools. For students who lack essential outside-of-school supports, the accommodations afforded by PL can have outsized positive effects.

Yet not everyone sees the PL movement as a good thing. Its links to tech-based philanthropic supergiants such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative have parents and researchers alike sharing worries over data privacy, the time students spend in front of screens, and the invasion of private interests into the public education sector. In 2017, for instance, Facebook’s founder made a multi-million dollar commitment to support PL’s expansion through the development of online learning tools. Does that money come from altruism, or from an interest in pushing American education landscape to develop a dependence on technological tools? Skeptical researchers have coined terms such as “digital privatization” and “philanthrocapitalism” to describe the cycle of PL-focused contributions from tech giants in the education sector that they see as detrimental and potentially self-serving.

Vermont has taken a path to personalized learning that stands apart from these concerns with its Flexible Pathways Initiative. The effort embodies a version of PL where students’ one-on-one relationships with faculty form the basis for personalization. It’s not flashy, but it may be the approach that serves students best. Instead of depending on computer programs, it emphasizes student agency in selecting from an array of engaged, community-based learning options. If PL is truly the future of learning as experts say, after speaking to Vermont educators, it seems that the Green Mountain State’s approach to personalization may well show us the future of the future of learning.




Even as PL spreads to schools across the country, it still lacks a clear definition. “You could ask 10 people and get 10 different descriptions of what it means,” said Sarah Erickson, a math teacher in Rhode Island, to the Independent. In 2016, the Rhode Island Department of Education launched the RI Personalized Learning Initiative to grow personalized learning statewide. “I don't think it has been practically defined at the school level, district level, or state level,” said Erickson.

A 2017 RAND study admits as much, and offers a working definition for PL in place of a commonly established one. The study stipulates that “personalized learning prioritizes a clear understanding of the needs and goals of each individual student and [tailors] instruction to address those needs and goals.” Yet what this actually means in practice remains unclear.

The absence of a common understanding has allowed two divergent definitions to emerge: first, that PL means using digital software to let students to move through a predetermined body of content at their own pace. And second, that PL means a restructuring of school, not necessarily focused on technology, where students’ one-on-one relationships with faculty guide them to set their own goals and chart their own academic pathways.

Vermont’s PL push embodies this second definition. The state’s Flexible Pathways Initiative calls on schools to support their students in crafting a “combination of high-quality academic and experiential components leading to secondary school completion and postsecondary readiness.” It is a “new way of looking at learning,” the Vermont Agency of Education explained in official documents. Students should be in the driver's seat and they should have a say in their route.

Schools have come up with creative ways to accommodate these changes. At Winooski High School just outside of Burlington, students can enroll in an “iLab” credit where they design individual semester-long projects with the help of mentors in the school or in their community. Students’ iLab projects can involve internship work, online learning, and independent research. One student learned American Sign Language from a community mentor and incorporated what she learned into a dance piece that she performed at the end of the semester. “We really dig into: What are you interested in?” said Lindsey Cox, Winooski’s iLab co-coordinator, to the Independent. “What do you want to spend time on? What are you passionate about?”

The flexibility of the iLab accommodates students who learn best at a pace different from that of a traditional classroom. “The iLab has been a place where students can go more quickly and the iLab has also been a place where students can go more slowly,” said Cox. Where the school might previously have struggled to support certain students due to learning differences or responsibilities at home, the iLab fills in the gaps. Cox reports that students who previously may have struggled to graduate have gained the credits they need to earn a diploma through work in the iLab.

Initiatives like the iLab are not unique to Winooski High. All across Vermont, the Flexible Pathways Initiative has moved schools to adopt a style of learning that is not only personalized, but truly student-driven. Out of a sample of 35 Vermont high schools, 17 reported that students spend over an hour per week in advisory programs where they develop relationships with a faculty member and a cohort of peers. In that same sample, 19 schools reported having a full or part-time coordinator on staff to match interested students to internships and early college opportunities. Several such coordinators spoke to the Independent, describing programs much like the iLab in Winooski where students learn through self-designed projects or online courses about a topic of their interest.

Vermont exemplifies the version of PL that best serves students: where students have the capacity to design their own learning. For some, that can mean selecting computer-based, self-paced classes. But for many others, it can mean supplementing traditional classes with real-world, self-directed learning opportunities. While these changes require an investment, it is an investment that schools must make. If the goal of PL is to match the needs of students to the educational opportunities that best fit those needs, it has to start by getting to know the students.




In contrast to Vermont, Rhode Island has pursued a very different statewide approach to PL. Rather than focusing on personnel or advising, many Rhode Island schools have invested in personalized learning technologies. In the Providence Public School District, school spending on web-based instructional programs shot up from 158,000 dollars in 2011-12 to 928,000 dollars in 2015-16, the latest year for which data are available.

However, the Rhode Island Personalized Learning Initiative claims to be about more than just technology. A state document tries to speak into existence what PL is not: it’s not providing every student with a laptop, it’s not learning in isolation, and it doesn’t mean memorize and forget. But do Rhode Island schools follow through on this vision, or do they just pay lip service to it? From speaking to local educators, the answer seems mixed.

In the best cases, PL means engaging classrooms where students actively learn. Dale Fraza teaches at 360 High School in Providence, which received a grant from the state in 2017 to support innovation in personalized learning. In his journalism class, he asks students to pick topics that spark their interest: “In our last [newspaper] issue, one girl was very interested in learning about the coronavirus… so she focused on that,” Fraza told the Independent. Not everyone picks weighty topics. Other students have focused on lighter issues such as the food in their school cafeteria.

In Fraza’s history class, the project-based learning model allows students to decide which issues they want to learn about more deeply. Many readers might remember history classes where dry research topics were assigned by their teachers. For Fraza, it’s all about engaging the students. That means letting them pick the particular research project that they are curious to learn more about. “If we’re studying the Harlem Renaissance, students have a selection of topics they can go with.”

But even if Fraza’s class stands out as an exemplar for personalization and project-based learning, other classrooms, even at 360, fall short.  “360 is attempting PL in small amounts around the school,” said Sarah Erickson, math teacher at 360. “But [it] does not yet have a schoolwide model or consistent practice in place.” According to Erickson, PL at 360 is still a work in progress.

While 360 is working to personalize learning through project-based learning and relationship-building, other schools in Rhode Island have taken an alternative approach. Many of these schools use a learning platform backed by funds from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative called Summit Learning (360 does not). Some of Fraza’s students transferred to 360 after previously attending schools that used the online learning platform. For many of those students, the idea that PL would mean more than computer-based learning in isolation was a false promise. “To be frank, the reviews from those students haven’t been great,” said Fraza of his students' recollections from past Rhode Island schools. “A lot of kids kind of resent the idea that they’re just going to go to school and sit at a computer all day.”

A report on the Providence Public School System, released by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy last June, supports what Fraza has heard from his students. In classrooms that were ostensibly “personalized” by the Summit Learning technology, which consists of computer-based learning programs, students had to adjust their learning to match the limited formats presented by the Summit exams. Furthermore, online learning aggravated off-task behavior, with some students “observably working on assignments from other classes, viewing YouTube videos...queuing songs on playlists, toggling between Summit and entertainment websites, or pausing on work screens while chatting with neighbors,” according to the report. Clearly, technology alone is not enough to engage students —the classroom environment and school culture need to reinforce for students that their voice matters.

Summit Learning, in a response to the report, pointed to systemic factors such as inadequate facilities and teacher absenteeism as the cause of Summit’s insufficiencies in the district. “Our program was not designed to directly address the systemic and organizational issues that the Institute of Education Policy’s report has cited in Providence,” their response says. “It is the relationship between students and their teachers that matters most, and any role that technology plays should be a supporting one.”

But if systemic and organizational factors are to blame for Summit’s ineffectiveness in Providence schools, what are the systemic conditions that can allow personalized learning to benefit students?

Springfield High, 360, and Winooski all have something in common: they each devote significant time to learning about their students. At 360, students start each day in Hub, an advisory time where they participate in leadership development, academic advising, and community building. Springfield and Winooski also both devote more than sixty minutes each week to advisory time. While advisory time is far from a panacea—staffing, funding, language access and a number of issues are key to quality education—regarding PL, one thing is clear: for personalized learning to really work, schools need to become a bit more personal.




In an education course at Brown University, Sierra was learning about Individualized Education Plans. IEPs, her professor explained, are a tool used to track customized paths for students with learning disabilities. They are mandated by the federal government for all such students. Wouldn’t it be cool, Sierra mused to her professor, if all students could have such a portfolio? It would make everyone’s learning so much more relevant, she thought. The teacher responded that it was simply impossible to devote that much attention to every student.

Apparently, Vermont has attempted the impossible. As a part of the Flexible Pathways Initiative, every student in grades 7 - 12 is required to build their own personalized learning plan. Seven years after the passage of that mandate, Vermont high schools are making that goal look not quite so impossible.

Is the Green Mountain State’s model the gold standard for personalized learning? There are a number of structural factors working in Vermont’s favor. Vermont is a majority-white state and persistent racial segregation is rarely a source of educational inequities. And at just over 600,000 residents, Vermont is smaller than Rhode Island, which can make implementing new reforms less complicated. Also, Vermont education spending is high relative to other states: on average, Vermont schools enjoy nearly 17,900 dollars of funding per pupil, the fifth most per pupil funding in the country. However, Rhode Island is not far behind standing as the 9th-best funded state with over 15,500 dollars per pupil statewide. As of 2018, Providence spent nearly 18,400 dollars per pupil—more than the Vermont average. Clearly, differences in the two states’ definitions of PL stem from more than their budgets.

Even though there are factors working in Vermont’s favor, its model of engaged, student-driven PL must remain a goal for schools across the country. Many Vermont districts that have gone all-in on PL serve mostly students who receive free or reduced-price lunch. For students who are economically disadvantaged, the flexibility afforded by a relationship-driven PL model allows their advisors to understand their particular situation and make adjustments that work for them. This might mean finding opportunities for extra tutoring if the student has limited time to study due to childcare or work obligations after school. It might mean finding an internship placement to break up the monotony of the school day. Student-centered PL systems such as these allow schools to better support their most vulnerable students, while tech-based approaches that sacrifice one-on-one relationships are unprepared to provide those essential accommodations.

At Winooski High School, which serves 57 percent low-income students and is Vermont’s only majority-minority high school, Lindsey Cox is grateful for the state’s move to enact the Flexible Pathways Initiative. She has always wanted to see student-centered PL thrive at Winooski, but the state’s action gave much-needed legitimacy to its personalization efforts.

“Doing something like this in the public sphere in such a big and bold way is challenging,” said Cox. “And one of the things that can help people understand it a little bit better is having...the state and the legislature saying ‘yes we support this direction.’”

District leaders, state legislators, and governors, the ball is in your court. Educators like Cox and Fraza are ready to lean into student-centered PL. Students are depending on it. Now take the Vermont Flexible Pathways model and replicate it.


Students’ names have been changed to protect their identities.


ASHER LEHRER-SMALL B'20 wishes his high school had an iLab class.