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Data and differentiation in online learning: opinion

In my frequent conversations with teachers across the globe, I am privy to many of their challenges.

Many of these challenges are centred around differentiation in the classroom. And with the recent pandemic forcing a far deeper engagement with their students’ online education, teachers have never been under more pressure to provide personalised learning that is differentiated and takes into consideration aspects such as the students' readiness, needs, interests and preferred modes of learning and being assessed.

Unplanned remote education and learning is something that educators and students alike have had thrust upon them during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. While it has had its now obvious challenges, it has also presented unique opportunities for educators to engage with a variety of online learning platforms, and some of the benefits those provide such as data and insights

We know educators around the world are working harder than ever to teach in the unfamiliar environment, where some schools are still closed or there are sudden closures due to new clusters—and differentiated instruction can be one thing too many in those circumstances. But it doesn’t need to be.

We believe that consideration and application of differentiation into teaching and learning could be the most important instructional tool to use right now, especially given the learning loss that has occurred since March.

Effective differentiation needs clear data, actionable insights and scalable strategies for long term reform and benefits, to both students and educators. Differentiation via formative assessment is a great starting point, especially in online learning scenarios.

Education Perfect (EP), through our analysis of over 40,000 pre- and post-tests completed between January 2019 and May 2020, found that student learning growth doubles when students are assigned individual next steps. This is a significant finding, showing that meaningful impact that carefully differentiated learning for each students has a measurable impact on outcomes

The ‘Assessment for Learning’ approach, the process of collecting data before, during and after teaching and learning experiences, has been a successful model for over 20 years. It increases student buy-in and provides more relevant feedback to the student. The use of technology can now make this much easier to implement effectively and at scale, allowing teachers and students to harness the considerable benefits of this approach.

How data and insights drive better learning outcomes for students

There are many reasons why data analytics benefits education. On the business side, schools can quantify return on investment for technology. It can even be used to effectively determine where internet access may be needed and measure student’s engagement levels.

Analysis of the data can also offer a snapshot of what does or doesn’t work during unplanned or planned online learning. It can identify trends that can help inform next steps to better support both students and teachers in online learning scenarios. For student learning, it can equip teachers to make informed decisions about instructional practices and apply differentiated learning more readily. Furthermore, it can provide students with deeper understanding of their own learning, a key factor in increasing student agency

Data sourced through assessments, programs and next steps, can play a critical role in individualised learning. The instructional choices that teachers decide to make can be tailored across the class, student body, and to support individual students as they work toward proficiency in learning targets.

Data and student engagement

From recent experiences, many experts agree that the longer unplanned online learning went on after an initial school closure, the more students disengaged from their learning and curriculum. It is still important to consider this with regard to planned online learning and teachers need to get comfortable with the student user data associated with online learning platforms.

Data insights form a kind of early warning system for educators and can assist in identifying the need for an individual - or group - intervention process to re-engage that student or group. It can be a very clear indication of, and support the need to develop differentiated learning strategies for engagement.

This early warning system can also assist others in the education system that support both students and teachers. Student and educator support staff, counsellors and mental health workers can access the data to assist with intervention and re-engagement strategies.

It takes a village, right? Online learning poses additional challenges of isolation and lack of face-to-face contact. Accessible data for everyone in the school or education environment means that teachers have the support of experts outside of their core skillset, to identify ways to assist students in social-emotional learning. It can also offer students the added benefit of being the designers of their own learning, and they carry that independence through their education and ongoing into their adult life.

To effectively develop a long-term effective data analytics strategy, school leaders will need to know what to look for and how to use it, to provide ongoing support and directives for teachers and students.

Differentiation and online learning

As differentiation is a high-impact teaching strategy used by educators to create lessons that can teach and challenge students at their own level, by adjusting the process used to learn, the content being presented or discussed, and/or the product expected from the student, it empowers the student to meet their own objectives and to grow and succeed regardless of their starting point.

Because students learn at a different pace and in different ways, setting the same tasks with no variation and assessing all students against an expected success criteria, will set many up for failure. A good teaching program needs to be flexible, high quality, and evidence based, so it can address and meet the needs of students within multiple proximal learning zones. Many teachers implement a blended learning practice, complementing classroom teaching with online learning platforms as part of their differentiation strategy

The key to differentiation is flexibility, and this invites a unique opportunity to offer the same lessons and learnings in different formats, a concept that online learning supports. Technology is a perfect vehicle for learning and teaching flexibility.

Research has shown that students can reduce the time students take to reach an objective by 30-80% via technology-based instruction. The power of technology is its ability to introduce information and reinforce knowledge across a broad audience.

Strategies and flexibility

Flexibility offered by technology in online learning means that structure and organisation of lessons, assessments and routines can be varied. Opportunities are heightened for student interaction with their learning. Individual, collaborative, and whole group work is made possible, and the ability to work with others outside their regular educational circles is achievable.

Technology offers the flexibility to cater for different learning abilities, needs and interests. The main hurdle for education leaders and teachers, is to develop lessons, methods and pedagogy. The upside of our recent experience with unplanned online learning, is that many have now been introduced to online learning platforms and there is a greater focus on the production of shareable learning materials.

Beyond unplanned online learning, differentiation with the support of technology can enhance or even improve current educational outcomes for students for ongoing success in and out of the classroom. Once the program pedagogy and differentiation strategies are developed, implemented, and utilised effectively, it is relatively easy to adjust, and is flexible and scalable. It really has a positive impact on both the student’s learning and teacher’s educating experience.

Alex Burke is CEO of Education Perfect, an online learning platform with more than 1.5 million users, in over 80 countries.

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