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Using Playlists to Personalize Learning

By Michael Putman
 | Jun 08, 2018
Learning Playlists

Imagine a school where students arrive at their classroom and start their day by using their mobile device to scan a unique QR code posted on the door. The QR code points the students to a website that includes a series of activities aligned with their individual learning needs. As the teacher enters the room a short time later, she briefly conferences with each student regarding his or her progress, while the rest of the class continues to engage with their tasks.

This approach to instruction would be analogous to what most people refer to as personalized learning. Specifically, the scenario represents a form of personalized learning referred to as playlist-based instruction. Unlike our Spotify or iTunes playlists, however, these playlists are not composed of music. Instead, they are a series of activities focused on specific content and matched to student needs. The intent of playlist-based instruction is to differentiate instruction while providing students control over various aspects of learning, including path, pace, or modality. Digital playlists are a natural extension of how many students are using technology in their personal lives, and thus may increase motivation as students gain ownership for how they will meet their academic objectives.

Playlist creation is fairly straightforward: Teachers begin with a unit, standard, or objective and break it down into a series of tasks. These tasks are then meaningfully reassembled based on assessment data to address students’ learning needs, including readiness, interest, and background knowledge. Students are then provided access to the playlist to complete the tasks, ideally with the flexibility of choosing where to start and what order to proceed through the tasks. Access is provided through technological means, which further facilitates assessment and differentiation as it allows teachers to monitor performance quickly and create or adjust tasks accordingly.

There is a growing variety of tools that can be used to create and deliver playlists. Some, such as Gooru and PowerMyLearning, provide specific content that can be used to organize and deliver playlists while also allowing for teachers to integrate content from other sources. Other tools, such as Blendspace, Symbaloo, and Google Docs, offer similar functionality but often without the flexibility of design. Fortunately, many work with the common learning management systems such as Google Classroom, Moodle, and Canvas.

The following playlists use some of these tools:

Consider these recommendations as you explore creating your own playlists: 

  • Start small with a specific standard or single unit
  • Ensure opportunities to learn through different media (e.g., text, video, podcasts)
  • Use symbols for visual references (e.g., a book for a reading task or headphones to indicate a listening/viewing task)
  • Preview content on different devices to ensure it can be used/viewed properly

It is important to remember that creating and using playlists is an iterative process, thus continuous monitoring is necessary to determine potential adjustments. As comfort and proficiency are gained, there is also the potential to consider codesigning the playlists with students.

Tom Vander Ark notes that playlists create “opportunities to expand the roles of student and teacher in diverse, exciting ways that better meet individual student needs.” Indeed, playlist-based instruction can provide students with greater choice and motivation while giving teachers more time to provide individualized support to students who need it most.

The following resources provide additional information about personalized learning and playlists:

S. Michael Putman is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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