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Bridging the Learner Variability Gap Through Digital Technologies

To achieve better student outcomes, it’s essential to recognize the whole child and use the correct tools.

“Based on learning sciences research, it’s a recognition that all students differ, and, most critically, it shows how those differences matter for learning to occur,” explained Vic Vuchic, chief innovation officer and executive director of the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise. “Learner variability is not just a learner’s content knowledge or cognitive abilities, but also student background, such as living in poverty, vision and hearing indicators, and getting the proper amount of sleep. 

“Learner variability also considers social-emotional characteristics that have been on everyone’s mind during the pandemic, such as relationship building and social awareness, motivation and self-awareness.” 

Seeing the bigger picture

Vuchic says an individual’s behavior is the result of an interaction between their traits and the situation at hand, not one or the other.

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“When you understand learner variability, you see a design challenge, not a student problem,” he said. “For many, it’s a mindset shift to asking the ‘why.’ Why are students not motivated? Or have low working memory? Is it due to experiencing trauma? Are they faced with stereotype threat? Do they have an underlying learning disability that requires a different approach so they can meet their potential? Once we understand the ‘why,’ it becomes easier to provide the ‘how’ — the specific support a learner needs to meet their goals.” 

According to Barbara Pape, director of policy and communications for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise, understanding a learner’s uniqueness can help customize the learning experience based on what an educator observes in the classroom.

“In a video journal, one teacher described her experience earning a learner variability microcredential in executive function,” Pape said. “She came to realize, ‘I’m not just a math teacher, but a teacher of the whole child.’” 

Enhanced learning through digital technologies 

In one recent study, Digital Promise partnered with a major reading product to add learner variability supports to its online reading platform experience. In the study with 1,800 learners, 92 percent of learners used those features and functions, and tried more difficult reading passages and attempted more assessment questions. Overall use of ReadWorks was also correlated with higher reading gains.

In addition, technologies can help teachers recognize where and why their learners are struggling, and provide strategies to help support them. 

“We have a robust edtech certification process,” Vuchic said. “To earn the learner variability product certification, edtech product teams must submit artifacts, or evidence, to demonstrate that the product offers at least six distinct features, tools, and/or learning experiences that support learners’ social and emotional needs, cognitive abilities, and personal backgrounds, and explains in detail how different learners are expected to benefit from each feature/tool/learning experience. 

“Also, the product identifies, and explains the use of, at least two features that can be adjusted by the users themselves to meet learners’ varying needs.”

Supporting teachers and students

Learning sciences research has advanced understanding of learner variability, and the importance of grounding educational practice and policy in the individual.

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Learner variability can be applied to any curriculum, class, grade level, and even edtech product design. Digital Promise’s Learner Variability Navigator, a free and open-source web app, puts the research at the fingertips of teachers and edtech product developers, presented in a whole-child framework of learning factors and strategies to address these factors. 

Pape says creating a sense of belonging and student choice can lead to meaningful learning.

In addition, elevating student choice and voice helps develop self-awareness, social awareness, and self-management. 

“It also promotes motivation, a factor of learning that connects to cognitive flexibility and self-regulation in the early grades for critical thinking, mastery of content, and collaboration with peers,” she said. “These skills, along with cognitive and content development, will guide students from the classroom to the world beyond.”

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