Personalized learning in North Carolina cited in improvements by students


A learning initiative at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in North Carolina is incorporating personalized learning in the classroom — including an expansion of access to laptop computers — and researchers have found positive outcomes for both students and teachers.

The initiative launched in 2013 with just 15 participating schools, but today it has been adopted by 63 of the district’s almost 170 schools.

A recent case study by the Friday Institute — a project of North Carolina State University’s College of Education — observed three of these CMS schools: Grand Oak Elementary School, Ridge Road Middle School and Newell Elementary School. At all three locations, staff and faculty reported a noticeable increase in student participation, success and eagerness to learn.

Mary Ann Wolf, director of digital learning programs at the Friday Institute, was able to observe classes at CMS firsthand. The classroom dynamic seemed to promote collaboration among students and allow teachers to become even more imbedded in the learning process, Wolf said.

“I noticed that students were able to articulate not just where they are [in their education] but also where they are going,” she told EdScoop.

At the beginning of the initiative, technology was scarce in most CMS classrooms. Thanks to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, however, students at every school in the district now have access to individual Chromebooks.

As Chromebooks have become more commonplace in these schools, classroom disruptions steadily decreased, the report found. With students fully engaged in their devices, there is little room for distractions or misbehavior, noted Valerie Truesdale, chief officer of technology, personalized learning and engagement for the district. But while individual devices greatly benefitted most students, the success of the program did not hinge on specific hardware or software, Truesdale said.

“Technology acted as an accelerator in our effort to personalize learning based on the students’ needs, but personalized learning is not dependent on technology,” she said in an interview with EdScoop.

The transition from traditional learning to digital learning with Chromebooks was seamless, she said. Students were quickly able to understand how to use the devices, and they have yet to see any major errors in device operations.

The district’s next challenge, then, is creating connectivity opportunities for all of its students. Because a majority of CMS students come from lower-income families, they often lack access to technology at home and aren’t able to continue the same level of learning after they leave the classroom.

CMS will be able to address this issue, known as the homework gap, with the help of a grant from the Sprint 1Million Project, which the district was awarded in August and has already begun using this school year. CMS recently established 250 WiFi hotspots for its students and will create 4,000 more by the end of September.

Truesdale is hopeful that personalized learning will eventually become the normal classroom approach for all schools nationwide. As artificial intelligence develops, the individualized learning experience can continue to customize education based on the needs of individual students — an effort that has proven to be highly successful for CMS, Truesdale said.

The full case study, titled “Personalizing the Paths to Personalized Learning: Meeting Students and Teachers Where They Are,” can be read here.