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Digital learning, iTunes & customization in education

Those days are pretty much over.
Those days are pretty much over.

To understand the changes that will be brought on by digital learning, think about what’s happened in the music industry.

People used to buy all of their music at record stores. Their choices were confined to what the store had in stock. They had to buy entire albums, even if they only wanted one song.

Then came Napster, which allowed people to tailor their music libraries to their individual tastes. It was later replaced by iTunes, which improved the quality of music downloads and developed a business model that was more acceptable to the industry’s establishment.

The result was a “vastly more customized and individualized experience,” said Derrell Bradford, executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now. He used the analogy Tuesday to introduce a discussion at the American Federation for Children’s annual conference about the ways technology can allow students to tailor their education to better fit their needs.

“You have a transformative idea or policy that’s introduced into the space and it changes everything forever,” he said.

Julia Freeland, a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, said the goal is to allow students to learn on their own terms, at their own “pace, path, time and place.” For that reason, she said, much of the  work on digital learning is being done at traditional public schools, which enroll the vast majority of students.

“What we’re seeing with the growth of online learning is not full-time virtual schools. It’s not kids sitting at home in homeschool environments. It’s instead technology being integrated into the classroom,” she said.

Freeland has studied the use of new blended learning models in New Hampshire to create systems in which students advance through their coursework based on what they know, rather than the amount of time they spend in class. The underlying idea is similar to the “competency-based” approach that informed the development of Florida Virtual School.

Her latest report, coming out this morning, finds promise in blended learning approaches like the “flex model,” in which students move through computer-based coursework at their own speed, while working with teachers in small groups for projects and tutoring.

Gisele Huff, the executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, said the next wave of educational choice needs to look for ways to meet the different needs of individual students, even if they are learning from the same teacher in the class. Otherwise, she said, “what people are still talking about is giving children a choice to go to more record stores.”

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)