What do you mean ‘personalised learning’?

by Guest Blogger, 10 March 2022

There is a growing and disparate chorus of voices declaiming that something is rotten in the many Denmarks of education and, increasingly, that personalisation might be just the trick to set that right. But what do we mean by personalisation and, given that the concept is a decade older than both of our guest speakers, why is it becoming relevant again? Vivek Agarwal, founder of Liqvid learning solutions, and Rosina Dorelli, founder and director of Da-Vinci Life Skills took the floor at SHAPE Live to address these questions from two very different perspectives.

The first point that Vivek makes is that although personalisation is a mature concept that predates learning technologies, delivering personalisation at scale to huge cohorts of learners is an expected feature or promise of modern technologies. So, point one: moving the dial is not just about delivering personalisation, but about delivery at scale.

Although there is no definition of personalisation in this session, it’s clear from Vivek’s talk that he believes personalisation must transcend the existing possibilities of learner autonomy. Learner control over variables such as time, location, pace and sequence of study, as valuable as it is, is not enough, especially if exercised within a framework of one-size-fits-all courses where the content is static and uniform.

So, let’s update our understanding of the challenge – the core goal is to provide flexible and personalised content at scale. Vivek proposes that data science may hold the key here, as evidenced by the work he has done at Liqvid where new data sets that capture learner behaviour and emotional states (not just performance) are providing better insights – ones that identify the learning habits of an individual and then match them to content combinations that are shown to drive engagement for successful learners.

However, as Vivek notes, so much of learning goes on inside the learner’s head beyond the reach of data capture, and it wasn’t made clear exactly how a learner could be shifted into that high engagement zone. He also highlights the really demanding task of creating content for personalised learning environments, and you have to wonder if the three content types he describes (quizzes, games and conversation practice) provide enough variety for a completely personalised experience.

Child's hand on tree trunk

Coming from the opposite end of the spectrum is Rosina, who launched with a passionate advocacy for change in education, inclusive of an evocative image frequently used to damn modern education environments and methods – a picture of a classroom with lines of joyless children. But, if this felt like a predictable criticism, it was also offset by a wonderful anthropological twist where the expected futuristic antidote to the industrial classroom was subverted by an appeal for us to revert to a tribal, prehistoric and overtly social mode of information transfer and learning.

Rosina’s back-to-the-future vision of personalised learning emphasises human connections over digital networks, as embodied by the Biophilic Education Movement. It is communal and community-based and the core method proposed is based on transdisciplinary projects where teacher-directed (rather than learner-selected) projects are personalised by learners through task completion and the opportunity for unique outcomes. Interestingly, the role assigned to technology in this model is very much that of a supporting act – it is there principally to reduce the burden of assessment in order to free up space for a curriculum that values social interaction and personalised learning.

So, what is the verdict based on these two talks? Can we expect a personalisation-driven revolution in learning any time soon? Well, probably not quite yet. Whilst there have been really exciting developments in data science that we should acknowledge and celebrate, there’s still more work to be done – hundreds of millions more data points are required, as Vivek points out and, of course, there is still a massive challenge around content. And where we do have a genuinely exciting, content-ready curriculum, as per Rosina’s Da Vinci Life-Skills Curriculum, there is no obvious way to roll it out at scale without a paradigm shift in how society thinks about education, nor is it clear how technology can really support this.

Watch the recording of this SHAPE Live event which took place on Tuesday, 1 March 2022 on the Cambridge University Press & Assessment YouTube channel.

Our next SHAPE Live debate will be on Thursday, 31 March, where we will be exploring the question ‘Are we just scratching the surface?’ when it comes to innovating for fundamental change in schools. Interested in attending? Set a reminder on YouTube.

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