Inspiration, Innovation, and Inquiry: What It Takes to Design for Personalized, Competency-based, Blended Learning

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When was the last time you thought about something in a fundamentally different way than you always have? It’s not an easy task to get rid of your current mindset and start with a completely blank slate. But when it comes to rethinking school and learning, it is that right mix of imagination grounded in local reality that is needed to make school work better for more students—especially for those who haven’t been served well by the current school model.

There is a small but growing number of schools in the U.S. that are adopting blended and competency-based learning models school-wide in order to make personalized learning possible, particularly for students from underserved communities. At Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC),* we have been taking note of the ways that these schools are rethinking the learning process in their design and what planning they need to do before opening their doors to a new way of learning.

We are finding that many educators believe in personalized learning and know that there are tech-enabled learning approaches and tools that are available. But some of these educators may not know what next step to take. Which learning approaches should they adopt? How do they choose a model? How do they implement it? How do they manage the transition from traditional approaches to more personalized learning? How do they know if it’s working? In collaboration with the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), one of our founding partners, we collected what we have been learning in a toolkit, freely available to all, to help educators who are interested in planning and designing blended, competency-based, personalized learning—what we call “next generation learning.” In RETHINK: Planning and Designing for K-12 Next Generation Learning, we guide educators through the decision-making process by organizing guiding questions, resources, and tools around four topics:

  • Understanding what next generation learning is and what it looks like in practice
  • Planning for and managing the transition to a different way of teaching, learning, and leading a school
  • Designing next generation learning around a set of learning goals, essential model elements (academic, financial, staffing, and infrastructure), and continuous improvement
  • Engaging the planning team and stakeholders in the design and continuous improvement process

The best advice for doing this work comes from experienced school developers. The field of tech-enabled personalized learning is still in its infancy, though, and we are only now starting to see documentation of the work of educators inside these new school models. Therefore—upon advice of some of the experienced school developers NGLC has been fortunate to work with—iNACOL and NGLC focus on asking the right questions and connecting with a growing network of next generation educators to figure out the answers together. For example, you can become inspired and begin to see what’s possible in schools by taking these actions:

  • Visit and participate in websites and blogs like BlendMyLearning and CompetencyWorks
  • Follow twitter handles and hashtags like @ChristensenInst, #blendedlearning, and #edtech
  • Explore existing models through video collections, profiles, and case studies

NGLC and iNACOL believe, first and foremost, that educators need to start with the learning problem that they are trying to solve, especially one that cannot be easily solved by traditional approaches. We also believe that educators must work to deeply understand the strengths, dispositions, skills, and needs of the students in their schools. Digging deep into the problem, and knowing exactly who you are personalizing for, will help you design solutions that have a strong chance of succeeding in transforming education and improving the learning experience for students.

NGLC is a partnership-based initiative led by EDUCAUSE in collaboration with the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Council of Chief State School Officers, and the League for Innovation in the Community College. Through funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NGLC has made investments in 28 blended, competency-based, personalized learning schools (10 opened in 2012 and 18 will open/re-launch in the next few weeks). We also invested in 30 school developers who are earlier in the planning phase working on designs to launch in schools in Fall 2015. To learn more, visit and follow @NextGenLC.

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