personalised learning
Personalised learning is an educational approach that aims to customise learning to each student's strengths, skills and interests. Source: Fred Tanneau/AFP

Personalised learning is fast becoming a buzzword but what exactly is it and can it really improve learning? 

The idea of personalised learning was explored long before the 1980s but even now it is still in its early stages of development and research is ongoing on the power of its effectiveness. 

Thought to be the brainchild of educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, his 1984 research paper challenged academics to replicate the effectiveness of one-to-one or small-group tutoring to a much bigger scale to enhance student learning. 

In his initial findings, Bloom claimed that students who received “personalised instruction” outperformed 98 percent of those who did not. More recently, his paper has gained the interest of various influencers, from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But the term has broadened over the years, often meaning anything from a learning software tool, right through to a complete restructure of how a school or university teaches and operates. 

What is personalised learning?

Personalised learning is an educational approach that aims to customise learning to each student’s strengths, skills and interests. Often this includes a student learning plan that caters to the unique needs of a student and can involve experimental learning, teacher-led instruction, group work, flexible hours and online learning. 

The most common types of personalised learning are pace-driven or student driven – both are designed to give students more control of either how they want to learn or what they want to learn. 

A more customised learning experience means teachers individually assess a student, give feedback in real-time and adapt their learning content to any challenges along the way. It’s also not to be confused with “blended learning,” which just means teaching that integrates some technology. 

Personalised learning often includes a learning plan that caters to the unique needs of a student. Source: Frederic J Brown/AFP

While personalised learning is being offered at all different levels of education, schools have largely taken the lead. There are, however, a number of universities offering personalised online learning degrees. 

Teeside University initiative

Last year, Teeside University in the UK partnered with D2L to expand its portfolio of online courses to deliver a personalised learning experience for its online students.

“As a university that is known for its innovative, forward-thinking approach to learning, it was important that we chose a cutting-edge platform to deliver our online distance learning courses,” said pro vice-chancellor Professor Mark Simpson. 

“Brightspace offers a distinctive, high quality solution. The user experience is outstanding, particularly from a design perspective, and the Intelligent Agent feature, which automates communication between staff and students, is extremely valuable. Our students and staff are able to talk to each other and access materials wherever they are.”

The mobile responsive platform with real-time analytics allows instructors to design courses, create content and grade assignments from a computer, phone or tablet and will initially be rolled out across three of the university’s online learning courses, including its BA (Hons) Business and Enterprise, MSc Cybersecurity and flagship MBA course.

“Today’s students increasingly expect access to tech that is seamless, dynamic and tailored to their specific needs,” continued Simpson. “What’s great about Brightspace is that it enables us to tailor learning around the needs of our students without losing the quality associated with a traditional degree. It will help us grow our online portfolio by taking the strengths of our on-campus provision and widening it out to a whole new market, both nationally and internationally.”

Student support in Singapore

To prepare students for university and work, Singapore Polytechnic has also taken personalised learning one step further by using data to drive not only individual lesson plans but also its student services. 

personalised learning

Data drives Singapore Polytechnic’s personalised learning efforts. Source: Shutterstock

Once students are logged in to their campus’s wireless network the school uses the derived data to understand which college services a student might need, which students are at risk of falling behind and helps identify materials and resources to support their specific needs. 

However, there has also been criticism from educators about the impact personalised learning could have on teachers and their workload. Not to mention the amount of time students spend on screens and to what extent personalised learning should go in catering to the individual. 

And, while various impressive education technologies exist to support this trend, there are some concerns that tech companies hold a vested interest in the argument for personalised learning.

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