Smart Classroom Technologies

Creating the Technology Framework for Personalized Learning

To realize her vision of learning where students work in "makeries" and "collaboratories," the principal of a new school needed a BYOD program and an adaptable personalized learning platform.


The impetus for Poway Unified School District to build a new school for pre-K through eighth grade was typical: a growing community fueled by new housing developments. But in response to that growing demand, we created a unique school model based on methods of teaching and learning that research had verified as effective. In 2012, Superintendent John Collins gave me the go-ahead to implement those ideas at the planned school. I enlisted the help of five teachers who had a similar vision, and we spent a year researching school models, business practices and design thinking principles. We also requested ideas and feedback from our students, parents and other members of the community. That feedback and research gave rise to the Design39Campus (also called D39C).

Pivoting from the Conventional School Structure

Instead of having our students work in the traditional grade levels, we have organized them into age-based teams called "pods." Children who would have been in kindergarten through first grade are together in a pod, those who would have been second- and-third graders are in the same pod, and what's currently our upper grades pod encompasses what would have been the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. There are two pods for each grade span.

The curriculum at D39C emphasizes self-paced, personalized learning; listening to understand; collaboration; creativity; and critical thinking in all subject areas. Integrating subject areas within projects is a key part of our process, since this approach encourages students to make connections in their learning. To help students discover their particular talents and interests, we dedicate the afternoons to exploring different topics. We then design related projects that will progressively build on students’ fluencies and skills.

Each morning at D39C is designated as "integrated learning time," when students participate in projects or small-group instruction. The afternoon is for "Deep Dives and Explorations," three-to-12 week projects (depending on the grade) that can include computer coding, stop-motion animation, furniture design, musical theater, engineering, video-making or any activity that grabs a student's interest. Students may work on solo projects, or if multiple students have an interest in the same topic, they may collaborate. Students in the upper grade levels also have time in the afternoon carved out specifically for mathematics. The teachers (called Learning Experience Designers or LEDs) have the responsibility of helping students strengthen their process of inquiry and develop the skills of design thinking.

Our LEDs share student-learning spaces, so several LEDs work with pods of 150 to 180 students at one time. The school contains a number of different learning spaces, and LEDs move to the appropriate space based on what their students are doing.

We have single and double classrooms to accommodate the size of the pods. These rooms have rolling, whiteboard-topped tables to better encourage collaboration and to give classes the flexibility to create spaces that fit the learning and activities that they will be doing on any given day. The school also has "collaboratories," open indoor spaces of various sizes, located near the classrooms; these spaces are designed for large gatherings or to provide students with additional space for working.

D39C also contains eight "makeries," all with polished concrete floors and durable tables so students can engage in painting, woodworking, ceramics, robotics or any other messy activity. For presentations by students or community members, we have the gallery, a stadium-style seating area equipped with large monitors that can accommodate up to 100 students. The final student space is The Loft, a large space designed for students to gather to talk, read, collaborate and enjoy time together.

Supporting the New Flexibility with a Technology Framework

Compared to the traditional classroom structure, D39C's way of doing things may seem unruly, but we've created a technological framework that makes it possible for us to monitor and manage the learning process. In fact, that technology-driven framework also enables our flexible, student-centered approach.

Design39’s approach to assessment and student advancement emphasizes standards mastery over traditional grading and attendance. We work on a personalized learning platform from itslearning that enables us to track how well each student is progressing toward mastery of the skills prescribed by the Common Core State Standards and provides an adaptable path of individualized learning, recommending resources when necessary. That technological support can help us to provide extra instruction and guidance to any student conducting any of the myriad projects happening in different groups and in different parts of the school.

Each student’s level of standard mastery is indicated via progress bar reports, and LEDs can customize the reports so that they align with the projects that students are doing. This means that within the context of a project, we can record and review how a student who would have been in the third grade, for example, fared at interpreting products of whole numbers; writing simple, compound and complex sentences; or participating in a range of collaborative discussions (all third-grade Common Core standards). Individual students and their families are also able to log into the system and monitor progress.

The other element of our technology framework is our BYOD program. Design39 does not specify what type of mobile device students should be using; we leave that choice to the family. It would not sit well with parents if we mandated what type of technology they were to send with their children, particularly since quite a few parents work for technology-related companies. The school has mobile devices for those students who don’t own devices, and they can use the school device for the entire year, both at school and at home.

Each student's having access to a mobile device allows for the flexibility we need in order for our learning model to function properly. Because of our emphasis on projects and personalization, a student's having to wait for his or her turn on a shared device would throttle the process and reduce engagement. As it stands, if a teacher wants to use a blogging project to teach writing skills, she can immediately engage all her students in the lesson via Kidblog. If students have to find out information in order to solve a problem, they can immediately do that for themselves as the need arises. This autonomy further encourages them to take ownership of their learning.

The BYOD program also increases the opportunities for collaboration. Students can use their devices to facilitate their particular role in a project when appropriate, discuss online content in groups or in online forums — and even receive input from students at other schools.

Upgrades and Future Plans

Design39 opened in August 2014 with 848 students in pre-K through sixth grade. Over the next three years, we will bring seventh- and eighth-graders into their own integrated pod, and our school will eventually serve 1,400 students.

We're continuing to add to our educational approach as resources become available. For example, our robotics elective class started with Project Lead the Way, a nationwide STEM program for middle and high school. However, the program has now introduced a new component, PLTW Launch, which integrates technology and engineering directly into K-5 science lessons. Our students can be involved in engineering starting at the kindergarten level.

We've been forming partnerships with many of the companies at which students' parents work, and have had representatives from those companies come in to co-teach and share ideas with the students. Right now, we're talking with Qualcomm about having their engineers become co-teachers and with Autodesk about bringing their 3DRV to our school for a demonstration day.

Also, itslearning is customizing its platform's reporting to better accommodate the way we approach education. They are expanding the learning objective progress report so that in the upcoming platform release, each student's profile will display all the learning objectives on which they’ve been assessed, for all courses or projects. Progress in higher-level topics will also be summarized.

A Bold New Adventure

For more than 20 years, I had a vision of what school could be. Although we have only been operating for a semester as of this writing, we have watched our students become fascinated with learning. I love that technology has helped us hit the high notes of optimizing personalization, flexibility and engagement, as well as keeping the steady rhythm of performance monitoring and remediation where necessary. It's a marvelous launching point for changing education for the better.