Posted by: schooleducator | April 21, 2009

iTunes Schools: Customized Learning for the 21st Century

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change The Way The World Learns, Clayton Christensen outlines ways in which schools can move beyond standardized, monolithic learning to customized, individualized classrooms. Christensen states: “Student-centric learning opens the door for students to learn in ways that match their intelligence types in the places and at the paces they prefer by combining content in customized sequences. As modularity and customization reach a tipping point, there will be a change: teachers will serve as professional learning coaches and content architects to help individual students progress – and they can be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” (Christensen, p. 39).

Technology and online courses offer one avenue to explore. With the proliferation of the virtual classroom, teachers can mine successful programs and seek ways to implement them into the course of study. Teachers can begin by looking at Florida’s Virtual Schools, which Christensen discusses. In the April issue of Education Next, a publication of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, Bill Tucker provides an in-depth look at the Florida model. The FLVS motto is “any time, any place, any path, any pace.” They employ a variety of teaching methods “to engage students, including live one-to-one or small group virtual whiteboard sessions, asynchronous discussion, and even a new experimental, immersive online game for an American history course.”

Also, the CK-12 initiative to create FlexBooks invites teachers to begin to develop their own modules to use with students. They can pool resources from multiple open source texts to customize a textbook for their class, and even outfit each student with their own personalized text (with broad use of the term here to include video and music sources). Teachers have to create a “customized” solution for each student. With the increasing availability of university lectures online through You Tube Edu, teachers can also tap into the expertise of lecturers at MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, to enrich learning opportunities for students. Teachers should consider developing a year-long independent project concept for each student and have students work outside of the regular curriculum on an area about which they are passionate. In addition, students could be encouraged to find mentors to help them work through their projects.

We are all using iTunes for music downloads, podcasts, and games. The beauty of iTunes is that it enables customization. We no longer want the full album; we just want the songs we like. And, we can grab them with one or two clicks and import them into our mobile devices. With free resources like Hulu and Pandora, these steps are cost-effective, which is a huge plus in this day of ever shrinking school budgets, particularly in states like California. Schools need to make a way for this to happen for teachers and students. Imagine if teachers and students could have a one-stop shop to download a poem, a work of art, a physics problem, a science lab, or a video lecture by a leading expert in the field. Teachers take on the role of Ms. Frizzle from the children’s series The Magic School Bus. They are the navigator for students and they transport them into different lands of learning.

With the advent of the Kindle and the iPhone, laptop computers will soon be passe. Kids can and should be able to tap into their customized learning network, to enhance, not replace their academic program. Teachers can then individualize work in and outside of class to more effectively reach and challenge students of all ability levels. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to harness the vast array of resources available. It is too much for teachers and schools to do alone. Kids are trapped in desks, when they should be getting up and moving knowledge around, with fluency and guidance from their teachers.

iTunes U is beginning to throw traditional textbook learning on its head. The limitation with iTunes U is that it is geared primarily toward university students. There should be a clearinghouse for K-12 educators to share and distribute their best materials for free download. Teachers no longer have to work in isolation, within the walls of their schools; instead, they can be content creators and contributors and have a place to go to pull the best resources to use with their students. Once they have all of this information at their finger tips, though, they need to begin to make sense of it for students. This can be overwhelming.

Some educators have already started to play with iTunes U for the K-12 environment. In an article at, In One Ear: iTunes Puts iPods to Good Use, one AP math teacher shared that he “makes up to five videos a week in which he solves math problems or answers student questions.” This is a great first step, but teachers need to go a step further, and construct customized programs for each student. The monolithic, standards-based approach to teaching has to disappear. It is exciting to incorporate these materials into a class presentation on a topic for the teacher, but the learning that takes place outside of class, when students can explore and learn on their own is really where iTunes U can take students. The picture: a student comes into a class, brimming with excitement at having posted a puzzling math homework problem to a math forum, to seek help from experts in the field to figure out a way to solve the problem, and he actually receives suggestions and tips to watch a related instructional video on iTunes U to then go back and solve the problem on his own. We want to create independent learners, and we now have the tools to better guide students toward full ownership of their learning.
iTunes U needs to link up with the Florida Virtual School model.

Once the students and teachers have access to all of this information, they have to make sense of it. The answer, for one educator, is to “have students do the leg work of content creation.” This teacher had students write Wikipedia articles about authentic research they had done, and created Google maps to have readers follow the geography of their writing. She realized she did not have the time or the ability to tackle this project, but she did see that her students could do it. She stepped aside and let the kids run with the development of the Wikipedia page and Google map. And, her students were the most engaged they had been all year.

The notion that schools and school districts wrestle over textbook selection and standards creation is misguided. What policy makers need to be doing is thinking long and hard about the habits of mind that will make children successful for the 21st century. Some organizations have already begun this work like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Also, thinkers like Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard, have identified the key skills: (1) critical thinking and problem-solving, (2) collaboration across networks and leading by influence, (3) agility and adaptability, (4) initiative and entrepreneurialism, (5) effective oral and written communication, (6), accessing and analyzing information, and, (7) curiosity and imagination. Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, strikes the perfect note when he says, “We need to prepare kids for their future, not our past!”


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