Personalized learning sounds like a strange term. Of course, every learning is personal, and nobody wants *un*personal learning. But there’s more to the term than just that. It actually refers a set of strategies that can help to better address the different learning needs of individual students. The idea is that these strategies can amplify what teachers are already doing during face-to-face classroom sessions. But what do you when you don’t have a chance to meet your students regularly? What can you do to make distance learning more personal?

#### Distance Learning

First of all, what is distance learning? It is often defined as “a method of studying in which lectures are broadcast or classes are conducted by correspondence or over the Internet, without the student’s needing to attend a school or college.”

In the olden days, distance education meant that students had to receive weekly mailings. For example, sir Isaac Pitman used a shorthand (i.e. rapid writing by means of abbreviations and symbols) system to send his students material on postcards. His students would then write him back, so that Pitman could correct their work.

Luckily, we now have technology to help us simplify the processes involved in distance education. And it’s been doing a fine job! It has enabled us to bring education to those who would never been able to receive it before. A good example of that is the MOOC, or the Massive Open Online Course. I wrote a piece on MOOCs previously, which you can find here.

MOOCs are a great tool for opening up education, and a fantastic step towards a better future for distance learning. However, they aren’t perfect. One of the main criticisms people have is that they are not personal enough, therefore lacking educational value. So even though we have MOOCs to thank for an opening up of education, traditional MOOCs are a step back from Isaac Pitman’s correspondence system when it comes to personal attention.

What can we do about this?

#### Personalizing Learning

Educational technology is a fantastic tool to help with this. Personalized learning is a strategy, and I believe technology is a strategy as well. Thinking about it that way, we see that technology is not a tool to personalize learning, but it’s a tool to make learning even more personal.

Here’s how it can help in more concrete terms. First of all, let’s get the most obvious arguments out of the way.

- Edtech can help students learn wherever they are. They don’t have to go to a classroom session where attendance is taken. They don’t have to move or lose time going from A to B. If they prefer to study at a cafe, they can.
- Students can also study any time they want. This means they can read some theory and do the corresponding exercises in the evening, for example after work. Then there are those who like to study in the morning or in the middle of the night; it’s all possible. Students are not forced to all listen to a teacher at the same time.Because let’s be honest, Sir Isaac Pitman’s session could do the same, right?

#### Technology and Adaptive Learning

Technology was able to not just build upon the amazing work of sir Isaac Pitman, it was able to introduce new elements, or give a totally new spin to educational strategies known to us for years.

Adaptive learning is one of those strategies which, even though the idea has existed for years, it was never able to function as well as it can now that it is backed up by technology.

Adaptivity in education means using “computers as interactive teaching devices, and to orchestrate the allocation of human and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner.”

This means that the computer analyses the responses given by the students. It can then change the presentation of the material depending on what the students’ responses say about his or her needs. A very simple example is offering the students more exercises about a certain topic when s/he is unable to correctly answer questions which belong to that topic. But it can be more advanced than that too. For example, instead of offering more exercises, a computer can also automatically bring students down a notch and provide them with simpler ones or supplemental materials.

In that same vein, let’s imagine a student has correctly answered a question. It’s also possible for a program to wait a little before offering this student a second exercise on the same topic to see if the student still remembers the information or the skill.

This way, every student has their own personal journey through the material. It’s as if everybody has their own personal tutor who is always paying attention to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

#### Technology and Personal Learning

Another example is randomization. When it comes to mathematics, exercise is of incredible importance. Technology can take the general structure of a given formula, randomize the variables it contains, and generate a slightly different exercise every time the student comes back to it. This means that students are able to practice endlessly, because there is an endless supply of different exercises. Of course, no two students need to practice the exact same amount, and this way no two students have to.

Lastly, when you think about online learning as opening up the journey towards a more personal learning journey, it opens up the door to scoring students on their mastery. The mastery score option that we have implemented gives a student a 100% score whenever a student has proven that s/he grasps the topic, regardless of how many times s/he answered it incorrectly before. In the past, a student’s online score was based on the average score of all of their attempts. The mastery score system, however, doesn’t punish the student for their own personal learning journey but encourages it instead.

#### Personalized Distance Learning

And then there are some ways that make personalized learning perfect for distance learning!

Easy online report cards make it easy for teachers to keep track of the progress of their students. These cards are filled automatically, so the only thing a teacher needs to do is look at general class overviews. It becomes very easy to see where students are in their learning, especially with a platform which implements a mastery score system as explained above.

Secondly, there is the issue of content presentation. When you’re teaching in a classroom setting, it’s easy to see if the way you explain content is the right one. You can read the troubled faces of your students and decide to implement a more visual or interactive approach of teaching. In other words, it’s relatively simple to switch on the spot. Distance learning takes that away, but education technology has the option of giving the student a choice in how they like their content to be presented. They can decide for themselves to start with e.g. a bit of theory, an example exercise, a visual representation of the concept etc.

Peer learning is also possible when you’re using distance learning. Many platforms, including ours, have an online forum which can be accessed by students and teachers. Students can ask questions about for example a math problem, and the platform will show the steps the student took to solve it together with the question. This way, teachers, as well as fellow students, can help out. We have found that the forum we provide our users is used most when it students are taking a distance learning course.

Lastly, it’s not always easy to get students to take an online exam, especially when it involves distance education. But e-learning platforms can provide digital assessments making it easy for students to work their way up to “unlocking” an exam. They can unlock an exam by scoring enough points on all the chapters the exam covers. They can then take it when they want to, where they want to.

#### Concluding

These are some of the strategies teachers and instutions can implement to personalize not only their regular teaching, but also their distance education.

What are you using to personalize your e-learning? I’d love to hear!

Let’s talk again soon,

Jeroen

Pingback: Why Edtech Can Never Replace the Teacher - SOWISO Blog