A deeper personalised learning experience: blending technology and a face-to-face approach
By Dr Julie Lewis, Personalisation and Experiential Learning Co-ordinator, and Melanie Currie, Associate Dean, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University
The power that today’s technology brings is creating a new wave of possibilities and opening many avenues for improving the student experience in Higher Education.
As this technology evolves we naturally want to use it to the best advantage for our students, but there is tension between a ‘mass production’ approach and using technology to truly personalise learning.
If we are not careful, we run the risk of actually de-personalising the learning process and relying heavily on the computer doing the job for us. So how do we blend technology and a person-to-person approach to the best effect?
Technology has brought us many benefits in learning, all the way from access to information and support with tasks such as marking, to full blown online learning. A recent Higher Education Commission report examines the potential of data and analytics use in Higher Education, while the Open University has in the past highlighted the many opportunities for teaching and learning in an interactive age.
We use analytics in a student dashboard to look at engagement and combine that with a set of diagnostics to measure student strengths and weaknesses.
A variety of data can be collected about students to help both them and their mentors to understand knowledge, skills, experiences and general behaviour to create a more personalised learning experience.
For example, our student dashboard monitors attendance, usage of our library, e-resources and virtual learning environment, and campus access, and it then uses this data to generate an individual engagement score for each student. Our students and mentors can then use this score to identify ways of increasing engagement levels and therefore improve attainment and progression.
While each technological innovation has an important place, it’s understanding your students at an individual level which is at the heart of making personalisation work.
Students, especially in their first year, can feel isolated without enough interaction with their lecturers and fellow students. Isolation leads to disengagement and, consequently, low retention rates. In contrast, research shows that students who are mentored show higher levels of integration and are less likely to drop out of their course.
As well as staff who are dedicated to a mentoring role, using experienced alumni as mentors can help to maintain motivation and consistency in learning in a way that a computer programme can’t.
By developing a professional relationship, they can really get to the root of a student’s needs by understanding their experiences, exploring their aspirations and creating a personal development plan which reflects their goals– in affect they act as ‘co-creators’ of their learning.
Much has also been documented about the benefits of group and peer to peer mentoring and sharing experiences – face-to-face, not in an online forum. Asking final year sandwich students, for example, to share their experiences with peers who are about to head off on a placement can open up a more informal line of communication and support.
In addition to mentoring, personalised learning also needs personalised experience to succeed. Technology will never develop and motivate a student like spending time in a profession or industry they aspire to join after graduation, or working on their own business idea as part of their degree.
For this kind of experiential learning to really be effective, it must include work experience at every level, tailored to their ambitions while also developing a range of transferable skills. Students must reflect on it and learn from it with the guidance of their personal mentor, creating a deeper learning experience.
Providing a comprehensive set of opportunities for students to choose from can also help to improve the student experience and give them the opportunity to develop according to their aspirations and skills.
Our first year undergraduates are required to complete 20 hours of CPD as part of a personalisation module to progress to their second year, but there is much more than that on offer to them if they are willing and engaged. A recent graduate carried out more than 350 hours by attending guest lectures, seminars, volunteering and undertaking work experience.
Beyond mentors, students should also have access to inspirational people and role models from a wide variety of industries and backgrounds – real people they can actually talk to and learn from. For example, we know that female students are often higher achievers academically but can lack confidence out of university and often don’t fulfil their potential in the workplace for a whole range of reasons, why not give them opportunities to meet and be mentored by successful women in industry?
At a time when we see more and more young people coming to university, it can be hard to make personalisation work.
We must use the technology in a way that allows us to get a deep personal understanding of individual needs to move away from one size fits all ‘mass production mode of education’ to really personalise the overall student provision and help them achieve the best they can. Doing this on a small scale is easy, but at a larger scale we need to utilise sophisticated technology for the right purpose.
Educational innovation is very important and as we see technology disrupting the traditional educational model it is even more critical that we must invest in people and their development to help support a more personalised approach to learning.