05/03/2013 06:36 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2013

Personalizing Learning Is the Key to Engagement and Achievement

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Around this time last year I received what I thought was an odd request. Juliana Meehan, a teacher from a neighboring district, contacted me and asked if I would agree to mentor her as part of her training to become an administrator as part of the NJ EXCEL program. Now at this time my plate was extremely full and, as a result, I was very reluctant to take on this additional responsibility. My tune quickly changed when Julie explained that she requested me specifically because she was so inspired by the Edscape Conference as well as the transformation currently taking place at New Milford High School (NMHS). I agreed to act as her mentor.

During our first meeting Julie explained to me what my responsibilities were as a mentor. She then informed me that one of the primary components of the internship was to develop a project requiring leadership that would impact students at the school level. It was at this point that the internship became an opportunity to do something that could truly transform the learning culture here at NMHS. As we floated around some project ideas, I became fixated on ways to personalize and individualize the learning experience for my students. This is where the idea for incorporating OpenCourseWare (OCW) into Julie's project arose, and the Independent OpenCourseWare Study (IOCS) was born.

Julie's challenge was to develop a framework by which students could engage in the OCW of their choosing over a set time period and then apply what they had learned. Together, we mapped out what this learning experience would look like, when it would be offered, how it would be assessed and methods to collect data. The most difficult decision was identifying a group of students that could help us pilot such a program. After some thought, the perfect cohort of students materialized: NMHS seniors enrolled in one of the "Academies @ NMHS." The Academies @ NMHS is a program of concentrated studies in three well-defined, career-focused areas directly connected to university majors and workforce need: the Academy of Arts & Letters, the STEM Academy and the Academy for Global Leadership. The program seeks to cultivate emerging professionals who exhibit the knowledge, skill, character and the work ethic necessary for success in the global marketplace. This group seemed the prime test group through which to flesh out and begin to refine the idea of IOCS.

In the early fall we had a meeting with the 50 students who were enrolled in the Academies. We explained that their Marking Period 2 project would be an independent learning experience where they would take a course from a prestigious university such as MIT, Harvard, Yale, Stanford or other noted university via the range OCW offerings that they would find in an online resource that we would provide. Furthermore, they were told that, after taking the course, there would be an exposition of learning where each student would actively demonstrate new knowledge and skills that were acquired through the OCW. They were given complete autonomy and flexibility as to how they would articulate what they learned, but they were told that there would be an emphasis on application as opposed to a standard presentation. They would be assessed using a project-based rubric, and each student would receive one honors credit for the project. Over the course of the marking period, students identified courses, registered through our Google form and went to work. An example of one standout student project can be found here.

We learned a great deal after the student presentations this past February, and were pleasantly surprised by how seriously many of the students took this learning opportunity.

MIT OCW discovered our project through social media channels and they eventually did a case study on IOCS.

The result of this work has been the creation of the IOCS website. All aspects of the project--including resources and the rubric to assess student projects -- can be found here. Julie and I hope that this site will provide tools and ideas on how schools can harness the free, world-class knowledge available to individualize and personalize learning for all students.