How to Drive Personalized Learning in Higher Education

According to a new book by Harvard Professor Todd Rose, generalized curriculum and teaching approaches based on everyone and relevant to no-one fail to meet student academic needs or fuel a passion for learning.

In essence, a one-size-fits-all approach to education is no longer acceptable to students who are used to personalized customer service from companies such as Amazon and Spotify.

While personalization has seen exciting changes in education, higher education is still struggling to adopt it. Nearly half of undergraduate students in the US fail to earn a degree within 6 years of entering a college while US completion rates were among the lowest amongst 18 developed countries tracked by the OECD. 

Could personalized learning offer a solution to some of these problems by focusing on the demands and needs of individual students and working professionals? 

The origins of personalized learning

Bloom Taxonomy

Research into personalized learning first emerged in 1984 when the educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom challenged the academic community to replicate, at scale, the effectiveness of one-to-one or small-group tutoring. Bloom found that students who received personalized instruction outperformed  98% of those who did not.

The introduction of one-to-one initiatives, online classrooms, blended-learning models, and the rise of technology in classrooms allow for students to have far more access to relevant information than past generations. 

Personalized learning thrives in this technology-rich environment, but is insufficient on its own to revolutionize a student’s classroom experience. However, almost 25 years after Bloom’s research, the higher education community is slowly starting to move towards personalized learning.

What is personalized learning?

Personalized learning can be defined as prioritizing the needs of individual students when developing curricula and learning materials. Students work at their own pace, often independently of the teacher. 

Technology may be used to allow students to access online materials, work through topics, find additional resources and to assess and monitor their progress. Students are encouraged to be active learners and teachers are encouraged to engage with students one to one or in small groups.

Effective personalized learning systems should include the following features.

  • Teaching is in line with established college - and career-ready standards as well as developing the social and emotional skills students need to be successful in college and career.
  • Students are encouraged to customize their learning experiences to reflect their interests.
  • Learning is at the pace of each individual student, this means students can move ahead when they are ready or take a slower pace until they fully grasp the material.
  • Teachers have access to data from student assessments and feedback in real-time so they can adapt materials and intervene to help students if necessary so that students remain on track to completion.
  • Access to understandable, transferable learning objectives and assessments so students understand expectations in advance.

Challenges

In introducing personalized learning it is important that higher education institutes get buy-in from educators and ensure that they are consulted in developing personalized learning materials. 

Technology should be employed for a purpose and not just for the sake of following the latest technology trend. At all stages of development of personalized learning, educators should keep in mind the desired learning outcomes. 

Any use of technology should go hand in hand with these learning outcomes. The role of the teacher is as important in personalized learning as in traditional education and should not be viewed as being supplanted by technology. Rather technology can be used to allow teaching staff more time to give individual attention to the students who most need it.

Benefits of personalized learning

Self-paced learning

​Self-paced learning

Students can decide on the pace at which they learn. Unlike conventional classroom learning, personalized learning allows students to manage the speed at which they master a subject. Using self-assessment tools periodically to test their knowledge they can ensure that they fully grasp the material before moving forward. 

For working professionals, this flexible approach gives them the scope to study course materials in their own time and to adjust timetables according to the other demands such as work projects, travel and family commitments. 

Just as some people choose to binge-watch a new TV series as soon as it is released, others eke out the episodes over days or weeks. Different learners have different preferred speeds at which to absorb information. 

Self-pacing means that students who learn at a faster pace don’t become bored while waiting for their classmates to catch up, they can simply move on to the next lesson. Those who take longer to learn do not fall behind and become demotivated, they simply learn at their own pace.

Insights via technology

Personalized learning program software such as  Knewton and  Realizeit can allow teachers to monitor their students’ actual progress against their targeted progress in real time. 

This can help teachers to more easily identify and help students who are struggling with the material and give meaningful one-to-one attention to them if needed. Rather than waiting until mid-terms or finals to assess students’ proficiency in a topic, ongoing assessments mean that learning is reinforced and where gaps in knowledge are identified they can be addressed immediately. 

In addition, students may feel more comfortable approaching teaching staff with feedback through email or the software provided rather than in the context of a larger lecture hall or classroom. This would allow more introverted students or those struggling to raise issues at an earlier stage.

Cater for various learning styles

Cater for various learning styles

Personalization enables material to be presented in ways which are most meaningful and relevant to the student. A personalized learning program should include different presentation of materials. 

Many students prefer to learn in small groups with a chance to contribute to discussions on the topics, unfortunately, traditional delivery of material in large lecture halls fails to retain their attention. For verbal students reading might remain the most attractive option, others who learn aurally might prefer to listen to the material. 

While most educators aim to deliver courses in ways which cater to all styles, personalized learning allows the student to pick and choose which delivery methods are most accessible and memorable to them. 

The teacher can help the student to identify their most effective way of learning and encourage them to use the most appropriate methods.

Increased student engagement

Traditionally the teacher was the classroom authority who decided on what students would learn, how, and when. 

With personalized learning, students are encouraged to have greater engagement with the subject. Teachers can help them to identify how they learn best and to set their own goals and targets for progression. Students can create schedules which meet their needs, whether they are night owls or early birds they can study at the time that best suits them. Sleeping-in will no longer mean missing out on lectures.

For working professionals studying as a form of continued professional development, course material can be tailored to more accurately reflect the knowledge required in their professional life. A personalized pathway to a professional qualification means that students and employers can have input into a course to ensure its relevance.

Widely accessible material

Widely accessible material

Personalized learning caters for students with diverse needs and backgrounds. 

The self-pacing allows non-traditional students with more demands on their time to work in non-traditional settings. Smartphones and wifi mean that they can access learning materials from home, on breaks at work or while on public transport. 

In addition, students with disabilities can use adaptive technology to get the most from the study materials and to communicate effectively with their teachers and classmates.

As customer service across sectors becomes more personalized it is inevitable that education will follow suit. Students will expect and demand education that reflects their preferred learning styles, interests and continued relevance to the professions they wish to pursue. 

While some educators might initially feel uncomfortable with the change and reluctant to move from the more traditional education model to a more bespoke student-led model, these misgivings may be overcome if higher student engagement and graduation rates follow. 

Creating flexible, personalized education pathways will open up higher education to more students and may make education a more appealing prospect to those put off by traditional teaching methods. 

For working professionals previously locked out of higher education by busy work and family schedules, personalized learning may make higher education more attainable.