NTAC 2016: Making It Personal


The New Tech Annual Conference is a place where our network comes together to both share and learn from the inspiring efforts happening in our network and to connect with important ideas and conversations in our field.  With that in mind, this year’s conference theme, NTAC 2016: Making It Personal, centers on the concept of personalized learning.  The current conversation about “personalized learning” in education is difficult to escape.  Despite the term’s current ubiquity in education there is not yet a clearly shared definition or approach to enacting the idea.  Right about now you should be asking yourself – “So why is personalized learning this year’s NTAC theme?”

Let me begin by stating up front that New Tech Network is not preparing to offer an authoritative definition or a fully articulated approach to personalization at NTAC this summer.  Rather, our hope is to open up a conversation about personalized learning and to stimulate lots of thoughtful energy and activity around the idea throughout our network.  While we are not ready to put a definitive stake in the ground about what personalized learning is, we do have some clarity about what it does not mean for us at New Tech Network.

  • It is not exclusively about technology. NTN believes strongly that technology can play an important role in improving educational experiences and outcomes for students.  We believe with equal conviction that developing the knowledge and skills that students need to succeed in our modern world involves more than can be accomplished by rows of students staring at computer screens all day.  Students must learn to collaborate, to engage and understand the genuine problems in their community, and to impute meaning to information, not just find it using a web search.  While technology can help enable all of these things it cannot serve as substitute for engaging and learning from the world around them.     
  • It is not exclusively about remediation. Developing the knowledge and skills of individual students is at the heart of the educational enterprise.  That, of course, means attending to the reality that students enter our classrooms possessing widely varying sets of current knowledge and skills.  Some approaches to personalization focus on the use of technology for tailoring texts and math problems to the different developmental levels of students in a school.  This approach typically lead to a focus on the use of technology to remediate perceived skill gaps.  While NTN understands the need many students have for additional academic support we hope that our collective aspirations around personalized learning are larger than a futuristic method of delivering remedial instruction.  Personalized learning, we believe, can be about capitalizing on the interests and passions of individual students to offer a broad set of richer educational experiences to all students.
  • It is not individualization. For NTN, to say that personalizing the learning experience for students is important does not mean that the concerns and interests of the individual student are the only thing that matters in a school.  An important dimension of public education in our country, though significantly undervalued in recent years, is that of preparing students for civic life.  Civic readiness requires cultivating a sense of shared responsibility for the pressing problems in their communities and our nation along with a robust empathy for the people whose lives are impacted by those challenges.  A thorough education should expand student worldviews beyond their own individual self-interest, challenging them to care equally about the common good.

In the wake of articulating what we do not think personalized learning is you might be wondering what we do think it is.  In short, we think personalized learning is about taking seriously the passions and interests of individual students as a meaningful and valid path to pursue their academic and social development.  Student voices should not find their only avenue for expression in the the social and cultural life of a school.  Planning for the next school dance is a great opportunity for student leadership but it represents an underdeveloped appreciation for the power and potential student voice has to offer the intellectual life of a school. To that end, personalized learning offers both a challenge and a question for us to consider:

How can we utilize the passions and interests of our students to pursue and support their academic and social development?

That is a question we see as critically important for our network to consider.  That is a question we cannot wait to explore with you at NTAC this summer.  See you in Orlando!

This article is a part of our NTAC 2016 series, "Personalized Learning: Top Ten Resources." Be sure to read the rest of the series!

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