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How Customized Learning Will Benefit Students

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Software is moving to the cloud and so is school. Cloud-based computing makes applications available anywhere, anytime, across multiple devices. Software-as-a-service allows us to tailor what we use and how much we buy -- take your pick of five versions of Turbo Tax depending on your needs; build your own playlist of music; build your own virtual desktop with your favorite browser, email client, and applications.

I wrote about this last week too and it wasn't a very popular idea with some readers. I still think School-as-a-Service (SaaS) is an important metaphor for the future of customized learning and am certain that it will work better for students and teachers. We ask teachers to differentiate learning and then give them big classes. The shift to personal digital learning will soon customize learning as much as the rest of our lives.

Here are 10 dimensions of School-as-a-Service:

1. SaaS has a digital backbone rather than print backbone; it's a unique student identifier more than a book bag; it's an IP address more than a seat on a chart.

2. SaaS is student-centered rather than teacher centered; learning is customized for every student -- a playlist/project-list of their own -- rather than experiencing whole group age-cohort instruction (large group experiences and seminars may be part of SaaS but they aren't predominant).

3. SaaS is competency-based rather than time based; progress is marked in small and flexible chunks (e.g., merit badges) measured by multiple assessments many of which are embedded within the learning experiences.

4. SaaS is dynamic scheduling rather than master scheduling; there is a new and flexible day schedule every day rather than a 90 day course schedule.

5. SaaS has a free or inexpensive foundation of open instructional experiences but can be enriched with premium games, simulations, and other curated collections and sequences. The same can be said for tools -- a foundation of pretty good open tools augmented by premium applications -- all purchased and downloaded and customized online.

6. SaaS is team based staffing with some local and some remote staff. About the time the bureaucrats are about ready to nail down new value-added evaluation systems based on annual standardized assessments, differentiated/distributed staffing and progress based on performance makes much of that obsolete.

7. SaaS isn't bound by a place but it may be take up temporary residence ranging from a day a week check-in to extended day/year with full wrap around services.

8. SaaS isn't going to get too hung up on a particular access strategy because it is mobile and works across multiple devices. Many students will look at least three screens during day: a big screen, a mobile screen, and a screen linked to a full keyboard.

9. SaaS works best with weighted funding with a portable wallet that facilitates acquisition of specialty services (e.g., speech therapy, reading specialist, math tutoring).

10. SaaS is best situated in case management services for guidance, transcript management, integration and application opportunities, connection to community services, and extracurricular activities.

I've written frequently about emerging learning platform ecosystems: digital content libraries on a widget rich social layer with a smart recommendation engine and aligned student, teacher, and school services. SaaS is really an extension of a next gen platform. The metaphor attempts to move a step further from teacher- and print-centric, classroom-based learning to a set of customized learning services that are flexible in time and location.

The big state and national online learning providers are SaaS -- at least a first gen version featuring mostly flat and sequential content and bounded by a set of restrictive policies.

Choice to the course, as just enacted in Utah by SB65, is a step in this direction. But SaaS will take some energy and investment by lead providers (i.e., the folks that take student outcome responsibility and manage the transcript) to stitch together into a coherent service offering. Most providers (including school districts, charter school networks, and state virtual schools) will want to join an ecosystem rather than attempting to build their own. Broadband providers will need to be part of the solution by ensuring affordable access to every home.

Teaching in a SaaS will be dynamic and rewarding. There will be less direct instruction, but when called for, it will be (like School of One in NYC) to groups ready for that lesson on that day. Master teachers will have full year contracts, will be will paid, and will have the opportunity to impact the lives of more students. More teaching contracts will be flexible in time and location allowing some teachers to tailor their work life.

Most families will continue to appreciate the custodial aspect of school. The efficiencies of SaaS will help some schools stay open year round. Families will have flexibility on when they vacation and learning will be very portable.

SaaS is a mindset as it is an academic and technical architecture. It is a conviction that our public delivery system can be fully customized and can work better and cost less.