Joanna Eagan-Murray

As the Precision Institute at National University explores technology-based personalized learning at the higher education level our colleagues in elementary and secondary schools across the country are also exploring ways to personalize education for their students. Below are the thoughts of Joanna Eagan-Murray, a National Board Certified middle school teacher at Rancho Minerva Middle School in Vista, California. As an instructor for the National University Sanford College of Education, she designs courses on how to support student success.

I teach 7th grade history, social studies, and English language arts at a school serving high-need students. Almost nine in 10 of our students come from low-income homes. English is not the first language of about four in 10 of our students and they are all at different stages in the process of learning to speak, write, and read fluently. We serve about twice the percentage of students with special needs as do the other schools in our district. If we are to begin to help all of these children learn and stay in school and graduate we must differentiate among them and vary our approaches.

So, how do we keep them wanting to keep coming to school and moving forward? The answer to that question has three parts.

The first, which we adopted in the fall of 2016 for our sixth graders, is an online platform and competency-based curriculum for math, science, history and English. My colleagues and I tailored the resources included in the curriculum to fit our students. The content includes videos, texts, Power Points and other resources we can use to differentiate instruction.

We like it because we can create different learning pathways for our students and also the platform gives them, as well as their teachers, immediate feedback and data that we use to inform our instruction. It keeps everyone accountable. Another positive feature is that it gives students access to experts in the topics they’re studying as well as to more varied and up-to-date information about the world than they would get using textbooks that quickly become outdated. The platform gives students a chance to express themselves to a global audience, via blogs and web chats. We also like it because it gives students choices over their learning. They choose when, where, and how they learn and they face the consequences of those choices.

Another component of our program is mentoring. Every educator in the building is responsible for 15 to 20 students. They meet with them every other week to check on how they are doing academically as well as socially and emotionally. They help their students develop the habits of success and interpersonal skills. They also reach out to students’ parents, to keep them informed and engaged in their child’s learning. We want to ensure that every student feels known by an adult who will advocate for them.

A third component is a wide range of enrichment classes. All students need to master the content of their core classes. But not every student is going to be excited by the same things. So, we’ve added classes such as Introduction to Computer Science, Digital Explorations, Video Journalism, Automation and Robotics, Advanced Physical Education, and what we call “Bullpen,” in which students interview their peers and teachers on video and tell stories about what’s happening at the school.

I started on this journey three years ago when I began experimenting with an online learning platform with my 8th grade history students. The following year, we adopted the Summit Learning curriculum and platform for our 6th graders and I moved to that grade. Now, we’ve added the 7th grade and I moved up with my students. Personalized learning has required us to think differently about how we do our jobs. We make sure we have resources all around the room for students to use as they choose to complete their projects. We don’t stand in front of the room and talk. That’s talking, not teaching. It’s been quite a journey for us. But, so far, a lot is going right and the kids seem to be moving along and the data is looking good. I look forward to seeing what ultimately happens but I and my colleagues are excited by how far we’ve come.

Precision Education at National University is a research-based initiative that is exploring new ways to leverage technology, open education resources, and predictive data analytics to adapt to student needs and guide them to successful completion of their academic and career goals. Learn more at: