Adventures in ‘Playlisting’

Adventures in ‘Playlisting’

When I volunteered towards the end of last summer to create a Playlist that would support students as they learned how to solve a quadratic equation, I figured that my several years of experience teaching quadratic equations in a traditional classroom, along with the wealth of resources available online, would allow me to design the most logical, lucid, and thorough sequence of activities that would teach any student a variety of ways to solve quadratic equations.

Here’s some student feedback from that exploration:

“How are we supposed to know exactly what we need to learn?”

“Am I supposed to work through every single resource in this Playlist?”

“It’s overwhelming. It’s hard to decide which [resource] is going to help me the most.”

Not exactly the feedback I (naively) expected. However, we have learned a lot this year about how to create the most effective, and highest-quality, Playlists that drive our students’ personalized learning experiences.

Luckily, we have two major partners that are continually helping us iterate and improve our Playlist experience so that students can more manageably direct their own learning as efficiently as possible. The first partner is our own students, who have been incredibly open and honest during focus groups, providing us with the specific user feedback we need to strengthen our Playlists. The second partner is Illuminate Education, who provides us with our Student Information System, and is a key partner along with the Girard Foundation in building Activate Instruction, the platform that houses our Playlists.


Before diving into everything we have learned and the impactful role both partners have played, let me first explain how and why our students are using Playlists. At Summit, we are creating a model where students self-direct their learning. In our Optimized Learning math program in our San Jose schools, students spend two hours a day in math, splitting their time between Personalized Learning Time and CORE projects. During PLT, students are learning content at their own pace through a competency-based math progression, utilizing these Playlists along with 1:1 tutoring by our math teachers and peer-to-peer coaching. During CORE, students are engaged in deeper learning projects facilitated by our math team and focused on the development of cognitive skills.

Based on user feedback from our students throughout the first few months of the school year, we learned several important lessons about the Playlists they were accessing during PLT:

  1. We had been erring on the side of too many resources rather than too few, assuming that offering a large variety of videos, online textbooks, online exercises, practice handouts made by our teachers and much more, would allow us to cater to all students’ learning styles and ensure we were meeting their individual needs.
  2. We overestimated how “easy” it would be to select a resource for a specific purpose. For example, if a student needed more practice using the quadratic formula, we had hoped it would be simple for a student to choose from a Playlist which resources would offer that. Ultimately, in an environment where we were teaching students how to take ownership over their own learning, we were at first making it somewhat of a challenge to do so.
  3. Students wanted the Playlists to include some features that are present in Facebook and the other social media tools they use every day. While it’s nice to know if a resource is a video or a powerpoint or a text file, what they mostly wanted to know was whether other students “liked” it or felt that they learned from it.

Without hearing this feedback directly from our students, we would have been much slower to make the necessary iterations to our Playlist. For a few examples, we strengthened them by:


  • Including a sample assessment at the beginning of each playlist so that students could pre-assess themselves and also see what types of questions they could expect on their assessment.
  • Enhancing the “Description” box on each Playlist to include a listing of the terms and skills that students should be able to define and use.
  • Starting to streamline our Playlists, populating them with fewer, but still highest quality, resources available to teach that content.

When students give us this valuable user feedback, we work with our other partner, Illuminate, as they continually make design changes to improve the platform and the user experience. For example, while our Playlists were once one long list of resources, they are now organized under sub-headings so students are able to navigate them much more easily. That way, teachers can place a resource under the “Factoring” sub-heading within the Quadratic Equations Playlist, while students can more effectively target resources to address their individual misconceptions and learning gaps.


Other features just released include:

  •  The capability to see the number of student likes/dislikes for each resource within a Playlist.
  • A document viewer for students to see uploaded documents on their screen without having to download them onto their computer.
  • A resource analytics tool from a student rating system, which will provide our teachers with even more actionable feedback.
  • A “My Stuff” feature that stores lists of resources and Playlists a student uses, and also a list of teachers they follow, making it very easy to organize their work in Activate.

Additional features that are coming soon include:

  • The ability to create online formative assessments within each Playlist that provide students with immediate feedback, while also potentially giving teachers pre- and post-assessment data.
  • A vastly streamlined process for assigning online assessments to students.
  • Improved feedback for students about which questions on the assessment they answered correctly/incorrectly.

Needless to say, the skill of Playlist creation is much more nuanced than I originally anticipated. In fact, I shudder to think how little progress we would have made thus far without the cooperation of both students and Illuminate throughout the process, not to mention the tireless efforts of our math teachers.


Read the first, second and third posts in this series “Embarking on Year Two: Moving Beyond Blended Learning,” “It’s About Self-directed Learning” and “Placing Students at the Heart of School Innovation” and stay tuned for our next blog post to learn more!

Written by Kieran McMillen

Math Specialist, Director of Professional Development at Summit Public Schools


  1. . @SummitPS on building “playlists” for competency-based learning. Important read. #blendedlearning #edtech

  2. Adventures in ‘Playlisting’ by Kieran McMillen at @SummitPS

  3. Check out this blog from Summit PS mentioning their experience with Activate! @IlluminateEd #edtech #achievement

  4. Thank you Kieran for posting this. It has been really great working with Summit Public Schools students, teachers and staff, the Girard Foundation and Alvo Institute to get Activate Instruction where it is today and where its heading! It is inspiring to see and hear how our collective work impacts your students and we look forward to continued partnership and collaboration!

  5. Check out blog from @SummitPS about their experience with Activate Instruction! @Rebecca_Alvo @SarahSeti

  6. Check out blog from @SummitPS about their experience with Activate Instruction! @Rebecca_Alvo @SarahSeti

  7. I am inspired by the idea of playlists as a way to individualize and have students self select their learning. I can imagine that the power of Illuminate to track and display student data is essential. At Envision Schools we are also building a data collection and analysis culture that involves the students. The data has empowered our students to take charge of their own learning, to know exactly what they should focus on, and provides real positive reinforcement for hard work and cognitive struggle.

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