Personalised education: are there still lessons to be learnt?

Billed as a way to boost engagement and improve student outcomes, personalised learning has been a hot topic for some years. But, in all the excitement, are we overlooking some potentially important risks and avoiding tricky ethical questions?

While personalised learning has been a key buzzphrase across the education sector for the past 10 years or so, the concept has been around in some form since the beginnings of formal education. It’s only in the past decade, however, that the technology to enable online learning has developed sufficiently, resulting in growing interest in the adaptive, individualised educational model it encourages.

“We now have good enough technology development that you can have engaging, interactive online learning that enables more effective learning,” believes Rupert Ward, professor of learning innovation, school of computing and engineering at the University of Huddersfield. “Now that we have the technology that can address the ability to do a lot of learning online, a lot of traditional education can be done anytime, anywhere.”

The ability of personalised learning to assist with traditional education is one that comes up many times; however, whether its ability goes beyond this is still up for discussion.

Dr Sam Sellar, reader in education studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, says: “Due to the nature of personalisation and the automation of decision-making in the instructional processes, it’s easier to see the potential benefits in subject areas like mathematics. There’s probably been more development there too as compared to the creative arts that, on the face of it, appear less susceptible to the automation and delivery of teaching in that mode.”

Sophie von Stumm, professor of psychology in education at York University, expands: “I’m sure there are computer-supported interventions where it has been demonstrated that the use of personalised computerised equipment benefits students when learning a specific skill or small set of tasks. I’m not aware of any studies that show this transfers into other areas, [thus] enabling students to apply what they have learnt in that one area to other areas and therefore really grow mentally.”

Ward, however, believes the advantages of personalised learning go beyond traditional teaching and the approach could help tackle the social issues facing society today. “The big gap in our educational system is helping students understand how they function themselves and how they function with other people. If you free up time in the classroom to do more of that, you end up with a better-functioning society and economy.”

Digital divide

Despite this potential, there are still challenges remaining that are preventing widespread uptake of tech-enabled personalised learning, some of which have become more obvious in the past 12 months.

Sheila MacNeill, former chair of the ALT, says: “There’s been a different lens shown on the digital divide, particularly as we’ve been in lockdown. Personalisation that is being driven by technology can lead to further disadvantage because if you can’t afford to be on the system for long enough because you don’t have the data or if you don’t have a suitable device, particularly for subject areas with interactive-rich media content, then it does disadvantage people. Technology is fantastic if there’s an equitable playing field; unfortunately, there isn’t.”

personalised learning
Image source: kriscole/Freepik

For Sellar, though, there are bigger concerns around personalised learning. “Many of the companies developing these kinds of applications were data companies before they were education companies and so the use of platforms is primarily about gathering data from users in order to generate new value for that data, and often that’s quite a speculative enterprise. This leads to concerns about whether education is the primary focus.”

MacNeill adds: “To give them their due, a lot of edtech companies are now employing people with an educational background, but they’re trying to sell a product, so, at the end of the day, it’s a financial transaction as opposed to a knowledge transaction. There’s also an assumption among tech companies that education needs to be fixed and edtech can help fix it.”

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No matter who is involved in the design of these platforms, ensuring they are fit for a wide and diverse audience is crucial. Sellar adds: “Any personalisation software or application is inherently limited based on its design; it’s automating a set of decisions based on feedback from the learner using the application, and those decisions are being made on the basis of values or learning theories that are embedded in the system by its designers. This means they’re inherently narrow and their applicability across diverse groups is very uncertain.”

MacNeill agrees that there are concerns around the assumptions that are built into technology of this kind: “We have to be very wary of how learners’ data is being used and how technology is using things like eye-tracing and facial recognition; you can already see biases in some of the technology, particularly around facial recognition, which is very worrying.”

She cites the example of online proctoring services which use facial recognition to authenticate the student. “There’s a whole load of trust issues around why you would need to do that,” she adds, “but a lot of these programs are not very good at recognising non-white or female faces. They’re just not testing it widely enough. Students are also reporting that they feel a real invasion of privacy when they have a camera tracking them, particularly when they’re in their own homes. So, while some technology says it can tell by keystrokes or eye movement whether people are engaged, that’s a huge invasion of privacy and trust.”

“Personalised learning will become the norm; it’s when it’s going to happen and how quickly. The way it’s going to happen is from within” – Professor Rupert Ward, University of Huddersfield

Ward believes, however, that most of these challenges can be met. “I think most of the technical barriers, in whatever form, are ­now resolvable with the right effort. The issues now are more socio-cultural norms – what we’re used to, what we accept and what we value. We’re also facing infrastructural issues – having the right way of enabling personalised learning within education, which fundamentally comes down to badging a micro credential.”

Once large qualifications can be granularised and students can choose which combinations of those smaller elements they use, personalised learning within formal education becomes much more achievable, according to Ward. Progress within this area is expected very soon.

Awaiting the personalised learning revolution

While by no means a perfect system, there does seem to be a general consensus that personalised learning and AI applications in general could have a positive impact on teaching and learning, but we’re yet to see the major disruptor that will bring about this change, particularly on a larger scale.

Sellar adds: “In so far as personalisation as a subset of a broader agenda to develop AI applications in education, we haven’t seen a major disruption yet that’s proved the revolutionary potential of the new technology. Rather, we’ve seen lots and lots of startups and some use of new approaches that you could call AI, but I’m not sure they’ve gone radically beyond what was possible previously.”

The future, therefore, looks set to be one in which personalisation enabled by technology is one aspect of a broader education experience.

MacNeill says: “You want learning to be inclusive and accessible, so I think that starts not with content or technology – it starts with activity and [setting out] what your outcomes are going to be. You want to create educational experiences that inspire, that make learners curious and that allow them to use technology, to critique technology, to know when not to use technology and to make them grounded people. There are elements of personalisation but it’s not just personalisation.”

The key is to build trust and credibility, among educators, learners, parents and employers.

“There needs to be much more of a dialogue between developers and actual practitioners,” adds MacNeill. Companies need to be much more open about what they’re doing with the data and how they’re going to use it and we need to involve students in there as well. It should be much more reciprocal.”

Ward agrees: “Personalised learning will become the norm; it’s when it’s going to happen and how quickly. The way it’s going to happen is from within.

“What we want is to get as many people as possible living their best lives, learning the best throughout their lives, and thus, enabling them to succeed. That’s personalised learning.”


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