Personalised Learning in the University, and what it might be.

In a recent post, I looked at an ACE report that identified the key factors that helped determine student success in HE. The report also noted that these factors are rarely practised in HE. I looked, in passing really, at one of these (alignment) in another post, but here wanted to ponder just an aspect of one of the other factors.

In its list of the pedagogical approaches that can really enhance students’ experience, and success, it mentioned ‘personalised instruction’. This got me thinking. Being able to personalise your interaction has been a notable feature of the rise of end-consumer facing information-technology since it really emerged last century. My ZX81 didn’t have a lot of options in that regard, but by the time my Amiga 600 was hooked up to an old TV, I could amend aspects of the WIMP interface. I could make it mine. As Windows rolled out into the homes of the world, it let you have your own wallpaper, screen saver, icons and more. Third-party applications abounded, allowing you to create your own. Now our smartphone background can be whatever we want – and we take that for granted. This is a feature notably absent from 20th Century Sci-Fi movies, where I guess they were impressed with the idea of what technology would do, rather than would it would look like, and the statement I was making with the wallpaper/case choices of my awesomely powerful tablet device.

Now, my TV can recommend, and pre-emptively records, things it “thinks” I would “like”. Events I accept on one social media app, appear in the diary of my smartphone. I may be browsing a page on my tablet, and the adverts on it relate to deal on a flight I looked at when I was using the desktop computer in my underground lair. We seem, collectively, happy to cede our privacy in exchange for our devices, and their evil corporate masters, knowing us – and giving us a glow of familiarity, almost so subtle that we only notice when it is absent.

This craving for personalisation has not gone unnoticed, but often those paying attention to our cravings and unnoticed preferences are, not surprisingly, those who want to exploit them. That is, those who practice the dark arts of marketing and/or psychology. Personalisation, as an innovation, seems to persist where other buzzwords have faded, and retailers are at the front on the line to know why, and how to make the most of it. We are, for some, in an era of personalisation.

On a basic, pedagogic level, it may seem that the bedrock of academic practice, the lecture, is the antithesis of this trend. Maybe, maybe not. But when we get to the world of Higher Education pedagogy, I want to note two things I want to avoid here. First of these is the application of these technologies to our VLEs. Of course this will happen, and student-facing apps allow us to serve students in some of these ways. That is fine, and to be honest, if the VLE doesn’t offer an experience that at least approximates the UX feel of the wider web, it just won’t get used.

My second rejection, as a topic for the particular discussion is more complex. It is also a little more controversial. I can eschew the first topic, leaving it to others, as I am not a Learning Technologist or a UX specialist. I have colleagues, good people, who I trust and respect, who like a good scheme, diagram or framework – especially if expressed via a colourful mandala of blocks. I don’t. I really don’t. I find it more confusing than a list, and it often seems so arbitrary. It also reminds me of all the easy-but-wrong-answers of simplistic categorising via ‘learning styles‘. I’d like to think about what personalised learning means, but I am not going to propose Webster’s 12-links of personal-learning power.

So, if I am going to reject anything on these lines, what am I thinking will help University students have a personalised experience?

The first seems stupidly obvious, but it’d be quite good if we treated students as persons. Actual humans, who we didn’t moan about, or dismiss entire generations as apathetic millennial, or overly politically sensitive snowflakes.* Knew their names.** Used their names. Asked them what is going well. Responded to what they say; adapting our courses and sessions, and telling them that is due to their input. Of course, bigger cohorts make this harder, as do settings with poor staff-student ratios.

Perhaps we can start by reflecting on existing practice. What do we already personalise? Feedback is our real opportunity here. They already receive personal responses, to an extent, to their work – so we can deepen and embed the sense of personalisation via feedback practice. If we are serious about meeting students’ craving for a personalised experience – this is a vital opportunity. So, that is a case for more human input not less. My own favoured method is, like a lot of the sector I sense, via short audio files. I discuss this more in another post, but one aspect that I am really keen on in these short (2 to 3 minute) mp3s, is to ensure I refer to the students by name, and to refer to where this piece sits in respect of their prior work, and place comments in that context. This is not hugely time consuming, but gives each student a personalised artefact, in response to their work: and over time, a sense of sense of our engagement with their developing work

This is just a start, and I was interested in a list (but not a diagram!) that I saw referred to at Manchester University. They have expressed opportunities for personalisation under three headings:  1. Student Choice 2. Support  3. Interactivity and Self-expression. These are often simple things – like guaranteeing small groups in some settings, allowing choice in the curriculum, building in chances for student voices to emerge, and valuing student autonomy. Of course, these are just worlds in a policy document, but they seemed to me to be on the right scale -not imitating the commercial notion of the personalised, bespoke,*** on-line shop, but working out from what students actually experience, in actual classrooms as, you know, actual people.

*Of course this is weirdly contradictory. Like the Schrödinger’s Immigrant, the millennial is apathetic and selfish, and simultaneously overly concerned with niche political issues – just not the ones, in the right way, that prior generations think they should be?

**This point may amuse my ex-students. I am notoriously rubbish with names, but I make judicious use of our ‘print class list with photos’ function on student records, and I get there in the end…

***This a word that, living in the Cotswolds, just makes me thing ‘overpriced, overrated and all show’, but that could just be me.

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