Category Archives: Customized Learning

Customized Learning

Shared Visioning in Action

I recently started a new job: Policy Director of the Learning Through Technology Team (LTTT) at the Maine Department of Education. It’s essentially the state tech director position, and its largest responsibility is managing the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI – 1to1 in 7th & 8th statewide – since 2001! – and making it easy for districts to buy in at other grades), and supporting schools as they think about how technology can support learning.

I have a small (but awesome!) team of 7 colleagues that help make all this happen. If you follow this blog, you already know I’m a strong believer in “Leading Beside” which includes both shared leadership and working from a shared vision. So it won’t surprise you that one of the first things I did with my new team was set aside a morning for us to build a shared vision.

We used the same process that Bette Manchester introduced to districts at the very beginning of MLTI: To think of a preferred future for young people we care about (the Preferred Future), then think about about what students need to start doing today to get ready for that Preferred Future (the Vision for Learning), then think about what teachers, schools – and the Learning Through Technology Team – need to do today so students can do what they need to do (the Strategic Plan). (A process Bette would credit to Bruce Wellman’s work.)

Building a Preferred Future

We started by thinking about a young person we care deeply about. Then thought out into the future, beyond middle school, beyond high school, beyond college or job training or military, and then a few more years, until that person was getting settled in their jobs and, perhaps, their family.

And then we thought about three questions:

  • Where would we like them to be able to work?
  • Where would we like them to be able to live?
  • Where would we like for them to be able to learn?

Here’s what the team generated:

These charts represent the Team’s Preferred Future.


Identifying Our Shared Vision Vision for Learning

The next step was to think about these same students today. If the charts above represent our preferred future for these young people, what do they need to do today to get ready for it?

Here is what we generated:

So, these charts represent the Team’s Vision for Learning.


Creating Our Strategic Plan

So, if this is what we believe students need to start doing today to get ready for the Preferred Future, what do do we believe teachers need to do, so students can do what they need to? Our thoughts:


And then, what do we believe schools (principals, tech directors, district administration, etc.) need to do so teachers and students can do what they need to? The Team’s lists:

These charts represent what we hope teachers and schools might adopt as their strategic plan.

But they also lead us to think about our own work and responsibility for making our Vision for Learning a reality. What does the Learning Through Technology Team need to do to support the work of students, teachers, and schools?



Accomplishing 3 pages of strategic steps is a daunting task! (Actually, self defeating! We need a little focus!) I gave each Team member 6 dots to place on the charts. The prompt was, “Which are the most important pieces for us to work on right now.” All of them are important, and should be tackled as some time, but we needed to identify where to start. Team members could distribute their dots in an way they wanted (all 6 on one item, or spread out across items, etc.), but they each only had the 6 dots.

You can see where they placed their dots above.

That translates into the following as the Learning Through Technology Team’s Strategic Plan for the coming year:

  • Collaborate with our Vendors/Partners to give life to our Vision
  • Foster Postive Collaboration with School Leaders
  • Know the Field – where are their successes and challenges?
  • Improve Communications (Organizations, Schools, Partners)
  • Capturing data / Evidence of Impact


Where We’ll Go Next

It’s not enough to capture a Vision on paper. It needs to be used as a filter and a compass.

In order to do that, we’ll have to polish our Vision for Learning into a shareable document (it’s a little too rough for sharing in this current form), and create a mission statement. Then we can put together a “Compass and Filter” document (that includes our vision, mission, and strategic plan goals). We will use it to help us decide how to prioritize and do our work, and help us decide which new opportunities to take on. We can also share it with the schools, organizations, and other partners we work with (or might start working with) to see where there is alignment between our work and theirs.

But I’ll save that for future blog posts…


Reframing Professional Development (Again)

Professional Development is more than just workshops, readings, and online courses. So what is it? And why am I dissatisfied with PD being reduced to these usual components? I think I have rewritten (and rethought) this post more than any other. My earlier thinking is posted here, and here.

Why reframe it again now?

I think I finally figured out what it is that makes us (Auburn Schools) think differently about professional development.

It’s the proficiency piece.

Teacher and student

We aren’t interested in simply sharing techniques or information. We want changes in classroom practice.

I have collaborated with other districts and initiatives, and I hear frustrations about how much they have invested in professional development – how many sessions they have provided – and how it has resulted in very little change in practice.

I think it is because our thinking about professional development has been incomplete. Sometimes folks say that teachers are oppositional or unwilling to change, but I think it is that workshops are simply insufficient (and perhaps their role is misunderstood), even though they are a key component.

Over time, our understanding about what we need to pay attention to in terms of PD and support has expanded to include 3 overarching categories: clarity; support for foundational knowledge, and support for achieving proficiency.


  • A Professional Learning Curriculum – If we have an initiative (technology integration, proficiency-based learning, math instruction, middle level practices, what ever it may be…), what do we want our educators to become good at? As with young learners, adult learners can excel when we are transparent about what we would like them to know and be able to do. What are the (clearly articulated) knowledge and skills we want our educators to become proficient in, and what scopes and sequences make sense?
  • A Professional Learning Progress Management System – How will we manage, acknowledge and certify adult learning (just as we should for student learning)? What system(s) will we use to help make the professional curriculum and pathways transparent, to certify teacher proficiencies as they move through their professional curriculum, and to record and manage their “certifications” (micro-credentialling, “badging,” Educate/Empower or other learning progress management systems)?
  • Answering “But What Does It Look Like?” – Simply stated, this is “models & examples”; a curated collection of possible documents, classroom visits, videos, photos, and articles, etc., to help teachers develop a sense of what an aspect of the strategy would look like in action. Teachers often have an intellectual understanding of what they are being asked to do, but not a practical understanding. These models and examples play a critical role in helping them move to the point of being able to try this new idea in their own classroom.

Support for Foundational Knowledge

  • “Same Page” Trainings – These are introductory workshops, getting teachers on the same page about a new set of concepts, skills, or strategies they will be working to implement. We used to think of teachers as leaving a workshop as proficient in the new skill. Now we think of these “same page” sessions as just the beginning. The real (professional) learning happens when they go back to their classrooms and try out the strategy (see the PD components in the next category).
  • Reusable Learning Objects – Instead of having to wait for a workshop, or for the Tech Integrator or Instructional Coach to visit her classroom, these how-to articles, lessons, short courses, videos, and other digital resources (aligned to our professional learning curriculum) are available to a teacher as she needs them.

Support for Achieving Proficiency

Lesson Invention
  • Lesson Invention and Tryouts – There is much to any new system that needs to be designed or invented (or at least adapted for our schools). The work teachers do to design, invent, prototype, refine, perfect, and share these systems and strategies is valuable professional learning for all of us. Even relatively simple ideas or strategies, if they are truly new to a teacher, require some level of “invention” for that educator to put them into action. Embedded in the idea of lesson invention and tryouts is the notion of continuous improvement, and the chance to try a skill in the classroom, reflect on how it went and how it could be done better, and then try it out again with the improvements (play-debrief-replay).
  • Coaching and Feedback – Keeping with the idea of continuous improvement, this includes the teacher working with any Technology Integrator, Instructional Coach, administrator, or peer, who models lessons or strategies, co-designs or plans with the teacher, observes, and/or provides formative feedback to support the teacher’s professional growth and ability to increase the level of fidelity with which they can implement the strategy.
  • Teacher Face-to-Face Time – Teachers need time to sit with other teachers working on the same initiatives to share experiences, ideas, and resources, as well as to ask questions and seek support. They need a chance to share things that they have tried that worked, and to seek assistance with those things they are still challenged by. And the notion of “face-to-face” can extend well beyond her school or district via the blogs and social networks the teacher builds and follows.
Teacher Face-to-Face Time

We don’t just see that there are 3 categories of professional learning, but we acknowledge that all three compliment each other and are needed. Teachers don’t get to proficiency without the foundational supports. To offer workshops without defining the desired broader professional learning at best leaves gaps in teachers’ learning and at worst becomes a collection of random workshops. To share a set of expectations with teachers (the professional curriculum) without providing training and supports is the irresponsible expectation that they can change practices without supports.

Successful changes in classroom practice come when there is clarity, as well as support for both building foundational understandings and growing to proficiency.

If your initiative isn’t progressing the way you would like, if you aren’t seeing the the classroom changes you’d like to see, I’d invite you to look at the strategies within the three categories. Is your initiative attending to each?


Progress on our Professional Learning Project

Like a lot of districts working on large initiatives, we're struggling with how we can provide all the professional development and support our staff needs and how to manage the professional learning. Much of that development and systems work for us (Auburn School Department) is now part of the Distributed PD Project (watch this overview of the project.)

The project is more about creating our professional learning systems, than it is about actual workshops, trainings, coaching, etc. The project started with looking at supporting teachers with technology integration (leveraging technology for learning), but we knew we needed a similar system for our around Customized Learning. Recent developments have increased Customized Learning as a priority, but we are continuing to put as much attention into the technology for learning piece – both as a subset of the Customized Learning work, but also to support the folks who are primarily interested in the technology professional learning.

We have just shared a draft professional curriculum grid for Technology for Learning and a draft professional curriculum grid for Customized Learning. Each is only a partial grid outlining the Measurement Topics and steps or learning progressions within each Strand. By partial, we mean incomplete, but we have shared them hoping that others will collaborate with us to complete them.

Also, we have started a heightened collaboration with Educate/Empower around this work and are collaborating more intensively with 3 other Maine districts who share the same needs. Working from a proficiency-based learning perspective, and recognizing the power of a transparent curriculum and easy access to resources and support, the project is, right now, focused on the following:

  • Creating a professional learning curriculum/continuum for transitioning to Customized Learning, including for leveraging technology for learning
  • Developing a micro-credentialing (badging) infrastructure for that curriculum (we have selected Educate/Empower for the platform)
  • Developing or collecting reusable learning objects (videos, online resources, online modules, etc.) aligned to our professional learning curriculum
  • Develop a system to recruit and certify a cross-district cohort of “certifiers,” who will review educators' evidence of proficiency in the professional learning


Benefits of Attending Auburn’s Leveraging Learning iPad Institute

Auburn Schools (ME), an early adopter of 1to1 iPads in primary grades, hosts the annual Leveraging Learning Institute on the topic. Registration for the Nov 12-14 Institute opens at noon (ET) on August 21.

Dr. David Murphy, RSU 44 Superintendent (Bethel, ME), has sent a team to the Institute every year. In this video, he discusses both what his district has gotten from attending the Institute, and the benefits of sending a team of teachers, administrators, tech integrators, and technicians.


Registration is limited to 135, so be sure to register early. Districts are encouraged to send teams, and the Institute is structured to support teamwork (but individuals are welcome, too!).

This year, we are expecting the Institute to be internationally rich! More than a third of our participants are likely to be educators from outside the United States. What a great opportunity to share your experiences and learn from educators from across the country and around the world!

Learn more by visiting the Leveraging Learning Hold the Date Page.  We hope to see you at the Institute!


We Don’t Want Just Any PD, and Badges Are More Than Patches

We’re working on a project to get more professional development to more teachers as they need it. Two pieces that we mention frequently are reusable learning objects (including online modules) and digital badges. We do that, in part, because they may be the most interesting aspects, especially when trying to spark other educator’s interest and entice them to join us in the effort.

The Distributed PD Project is so much more than just those two components. But if you’d mostly been involved in brief conversations about the project, you might not think so. So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when colleagues say to me, “We found lots of resources that have badges. Why don’t we just use those?” Or, “Why don’t we just suProfessional Learningbscribe to this service? There are lots of PD modules, and it has badges.”

Now, I know they are well intentioned (these are good people, I like working with), and just trying to help (why reinvent the wheel, right?).

But the suggestions totally miss the point of what we’re trying to achieve with the project.

My first question to them probably should have been, “What are your criteria for selecting these resources?” In all fairness, although familiar with the type of resources, I haven’t spent real time looking at these specific ones, and I haven’t asked my colleagues this question. But I suspect that their answer would be, “They have lots of PD resources that our teachers would like or find useful, and they have badges.” And I’m sure there would be at least some resources there helpful to us and our work. 

But our goal is not simply to provide a buffet of PD, nor is it to simply have a badge at the end

In fact there are three key ways that these resource suggestions misunderstand our work. There are three key, distinguishing criteria we should apply to any resources or services we select to support this project.

1) We don’t want just any PD. We want targeted training aimed at supporting teachers as they work to implement our strategic initiatives (Customized Learning, Tech for Learning, etc.). We’re building out that professional learning curriculum so that we can be transparent about what we would like teachers to know and be able to do. 

10 Tech Integration Professional Curriculum BucketsSo one criterion we’d want is for a high level of alignment between the training modules and the knowledge and skills needed for our initiatives. A question I could ask about the suggested products is, “How does the list of available modules match our professional learning curriculum?” Keep in mind that a subscription service might not meet that criterion, but still have tons of high quality modules, just not the ones that we really need. And that is ok. We are quite happy to build out our own modules and playlists of available reusable learning objects. But those will be targeted directly to our professional learning curriculum.

2) We aren’t looking for badges that show that an educator participated in a training. We’re looking for badges that indicate that the educator is proficient with the professional learning target. If the training module were for something like standards-based grading, for example, we would want the teacher to earn the badge when she demonstrates that she is skilled at analyzing student work for how it demonstrated proficiency, is skilled at providing standards-based feedback to students, and is skilled at rating a student’s level of proficiency in that learning target based on evidence from the student’s work. We are not looking for the badge to be awarded when the educator participated in the training.

So a second criterion we’d want is for badges to be awarded only when a teacher can show that she is skilled at or understands a particular professional learning target. A question I could ask about the suggested products is, “Are badges awarded for demonstrated proficiency?” This is why, in some ways, the professional learning curriculum and having a cohort of qualified certifiers to examine the teacher’s evidence and determine when she has earned a badge may be more important than finding good training materials.

3) We don’t want badges just so we have an icon to show that we did something. The image or patch of the earned badge OpenBadgesmay be the least important aspect. As I mentioned in notes from a forum on digital badges, badging is about credentialling. It’s about recognition, knowing something about someone in a verified way (evidence-based way), and represents an individual’s skills and achievements. Badges travel with the individual (do not reside solely within a single platform or system) and can come from a variety of sources – a badge needs transportability and interoperability. As such, badges need a standard. Such a standard supports their use by the folks who issue them, the folks who earn them, and the folks who are interested in which badges you have.

So a third criterion is that the badges meet the badging standard. provides that standardA question I could ask about the suggested products is, “Is the badging OpenBadges compliant?

So, what we’re looking for are professional learning resources that meet some specific criteria: 

  • They are highly aligned with our professional curriculum and strategic initiatives
  • They offer acknowledgement only upon demonstrated proficiency
  • They are OpenBadges compliant (if they use badges)


Notes from Open Badge Forum

One aspect of our Distributed PD Project is credentialing: thinking about how we might acknowledge what teachers know and can do and giving them “credit” for the new things they are learning. One way we’re looking to do this is through digital badges.

On April 30, 2014, I attended Open Badges: Re-imagining Credentials for the Digital Age at the University of Southern Maine. The session featured Erin Knight, the Executive Director of the Badge Alliance.

Below are my notes from that session (Apologies if they seem cryptic.  I just copied them here and didn’t enhance or clarify them much…).


  • It’s about recognition
  • Knowing something about someone in a verified way (evidence-based way)
  • Represents skills and achievements
  • One can unlock the way to the next one
  • Also about the information that is now available on the “back” of the badge
  • Also design (social) badges to drive the behaviors we desire


  • Are the commercial providers (Blackboald, moodel, etc.) building their badges in such a way that folks can use them in other platforms/ecosystems?
    • Some yes, others no.
  • Why badges?
    • Capture a complete learning path
    • Signal that learning to key stakeholders
    • Build and communicate reputation and identity (data about learning for the learner)
    • Build maps of learning pathways and opportunities for more learning
    • Foster an ecosystem where learning is connected across contexts, across lifetimes
  • How badges?
    • What does it mean to work at an ecosystem level (not just our org but learners can earn badges across many organizations and experiences)****
    • Software – e.g. open badges backpack
    • Open badges standard – for info, but also for structure so the info is accessible and examinable
    • Validation –
      • the badge has a lot of info;
      • next level is “Endorsements” which is outside people who review the standards and work and then endorse the badge;
      • Usage – how is it being used in the market (if 10 poeple got the badge and the employers like those employees, that says something about the badges)
  • Currency – you need both the assurance of value and the acceptance by society



  • Think of the large badges as “Paths” (code school or P2PU). Or would this be the Phases of Implementation?
  • DePaul U is accepting badges in the application process
  • This is an evidence based credentialling system
  • Can be used in a “granular” and “stackable” way
  • Works through working groups
  • Defining the skills and the outcomes of those schools
  • Levels of badges: participation, skill, achievement/certification
  • Making badges for what’s meaningful for you, not just every badge you can
  • Backpack Federation allows badges to be stored many different places but still findable
  • The learner owns the badges (eg, they can make choose which badges they would like to keep and which they would like to get rid of)


  • What does the ecosystem idea tell us about how we define our system? The ecosystem ideas means that teachers should be able to earn their badges anywhere… Does that mean that we should define our medium and large badge requirements generically and point to our own badges that might fulfil that requirement???


Reimagining credentials for a transformed culture of learning.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM
215 Abromson Center, USM Portland Campus
CTEL Speaker Series

Guest Speaker: Erin Knight, Executive Director, Badge Alliance
Lives in Portland, Colby grad

Open Badges are a new way to think about recognizing and connecting learning and skill development. Digital, information-based, and stackable badges are becoming a new currency for skills, identity, and jobs. In this presentation, Erin Knight, Executive Director of Badge Alliance, will explore the state of the work so far, with examples of where badging is being successfully used across the ecosystem, as well as opportunities for higher education institutions to leverage badging within their own systems for their own benefit.

Does Technology Improve Learning – No! A Keynote

I recently had the honor of keynoting at the Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) conference.

My message was that technology alone will not improve learning; only teachers improve learning. But technology can be wonderful tool for teachers and for students under the guidance of teachers.

Watch the keynote here. And related resources are down below.


If we want to leverage technology well for learning, then these are the components we should attention to:

  • Focus on Learning
  • Deliberate, Shared Leadership
  • Community Engagement
  • How You REALLY Protect Stuff
  • Support the Heck Out of Folks





Community Engagement:

Supporting Educators (Professional Development):


A Child Struggles in School: Where Does the Problem Lie?

In a conversation recently with a caring, conscientious teacher, she commented that she had success working with struggling learners and helping to make them feel smart.

But when they got to the next grade and perhaps had a teacher that wasn't as effective at reaching those children, or perhaps thought there was a pace for learning and students should stick to it, or perhaps simply saw the onus for learning as being on the student, the students really struggled again.

She worried that perhaps she had led those students to have an unrealistic view of themselves by not being more up front with them about being struggling learners. She wondered, despite her success helping those students to learn, to feel successful, and to feel smart, if she shouldn't be more direct with them about being struggling learners, to prepare them for possible pain and disappointment later.

And I caught myself wondering, is the problem that each child isn't where the school is in the curriculum?

Or is the problem that the school isn't where the child is in the curriculum?


The Problem With Grades Based on Averages

Our district is working towards customized learning, which includes changes in school structures to allow students flexibility of pace and approach to learning, demonstrating proficiency in a progression of learning targets, within an environment that keeps kids interested in coming back to learn each day.

During a conversation at our School Committee meeting this evening, about why high school students had gaps in their learning, our high school principal suggested it was because of our inefficient system of basing grades on averages. He provided an analogy for why schools should move away from averaged grades and toward a proficiency based system. (Which, in my opinion, was one of the best explanations I've heard of why we need to change that.)

His example:

Imagine taking your car to be inspected. It comes out from the inspection with a new sticker, and the mechanic tells you, “Your lights work great, and your blinkers work great, and your tires are in good shape. But your breaks don't work. But when we averaged the performance of each component, you passed.”

What Can Scouting Teach Us About Proficiency-Based Learning

Scouting does pretty good work with curriculum.

I think our Customized Learning work (both for kids and the professional learning for educators) shares many characteristics with theirs: learning is customized; individuals progress at their own pace; they progress by demonstrating proficiency; learners have lots of voice and choice simultaneously with clear guidelines and expectations; learning is chunked into modules, instead of large all-encompassing courses; proficiency requires a mix of knowing and doing and applying/creating; responsibility for the teaching & learning is distributed; etc.

Auburn has a Distributed PD System Design project going on right now. They (we) just posted two activities that might help others think about curriculum organization and managing learning in a proficiency-based system: