Personalised Learning in Higher Education—Developing a Deep Understanding

With the challenge of personalised learning largely ahead for higher education, but with a commitment to this educational goal, there is a growing body of literature that explores the nature of personalised learning strategies for higher education. In the remainder of this chapter, we explore some of the key areas of debate related to pedagogy and personalising learning in higher education using e-mediated tools. By taking this approach, we reveal that there is an appetite for an evidence base that demonstrates the impact of personalised learning on student learning outcomes through e-mediated tools, but there remain many gaps at this time. Many of the studies have focussed on what Habermas (1972) would regard as technical aspects, with underpinning learning theory not deeply attended to at this time.

What Is Personalised Learning in Higher Education?

The key literature points to learners being valued as individuals as the foundation of personalised learning. There also appears to be agreement that personalisation should evolve out of what learners feel is possible for themselves, as well as the idea that the learning is primarily student-focused. There also appears to be consensus that personalised learning aims to tailor teaching to individual needs, interests, and aptitudes, to ensure every learner achieves and reaches the highest standards possible. Sebba et al. (2007) assert that this approach to learning is not about ICT or self-regulated learning (SRL), it is a philosophy or way of working. According to Heller et al. (2006), personalised learning is usually preceded by assessing the learner’s current knowledge state and other individual characteristics or preferences and by using the results of this assessment to inform the teaching.

Davis (2011) notes that personalisation can be difficult to define in a universal way, due to the different approaches it can take in education. Verpoorten et al. (2009) acknowledge there is confusion between individualised learning and personalised learning, with individualised learning being commonly associated with good pedagogy. They stress that personalisation occurs when learning becomes personal in the learner’s mind. This perspective sees learners as separate entities with unique learning goals and needs that require customised support. In contrast to individualised learning, personalised learning emphasises the notion that learners consider given settings for learning as personally relevant (Verpoorten et al. 2009). They claim that personalised learning relies on three interrelated theories—constructivism, reflective thinking, and SRL—maintaining that those who view personalised learning as a positive option often refer to it in relation to the student’s attitudes and values.

Ballard and Butler (2011) note that personalisation has emerged as a central feature of educational strategies in the UK and abroad over the past decade. At the heart of this move is a vision to empower learners to take more ownership of their learning and to develop autonomy. They maintain that if personalised learning is an organising principal, then Vygotsky’s ZPD can provide the context and the framework for assessing learner potential and development for e-learning. Vygotsky’s ZPD would provide the instructions for personalised learning as well as a way of understanding the causal dynamics of development that allow appropriate pedagogical interventions (Ballard and Butler 2011).

Keppell (2015) argues there are six broad concepts that together comprise personalised learning, these being:

  • • digital citizenship;
  • • seamless learning;
  • • learner engagement;
  • • learning-oriented assessment;
  • • lifelong and life-wide learning; and
  • • desired paths.

This thinking takes the debate and challenges associated with personalisation in higher education to a new level, noting the importance, for example, of volition, and the connection with further learning beyond the current learning episodes. In this way, Keppell (2015) argues that the role of the educator now and in the future is to assist learners to design their own personalised learning space to become autonomous, lifelong learners and that this requires an intentional approach as the ability to engage in personalised learning itself requires particular knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

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