Towards Personalised Learning Experiences in Higher Education

Imagine that you have applied to study engineering at one of the top UK universities. You turn up at the beginning of Freshers Week, ready to embark on your journey towards becoming an engineer. As in all Freshers Week preparations, the university has sent you a detailed itinerary for the week, and your first meeting is with your Learning Advisor. This is someone like the present day personal tutor, but unlike today’s personal tutor, this Learning Advisor will partner with you throughout your academic journey at this top university.

You show up promptly at the Learning Advisor’s office at 9:00 in the morning. After exchanging pleasantries, and with a hot cup of coffee in your hands, you are soon engrossed in discussing your study plans. It’s not like today’s asymmetrical teacher-student communication. This is a discussion of equals, focussing on the same objective, namely to create the best possible learning environment for you. It’s a discussion and meeting together of mature and interested minds.

Your Learning Advisor enquires about your specific passions in your desire to study engineering, your previous experiences in industry, if any, and your specific competences in areas like Physics and Mathematics. She sits down with you in front of a large computer touchscreen on which there are the various course modules that you will engage with in your forthcoming academic career. Pretty soon, by moving modules around, you create your own personalised study programme. Not only that, you both sit down to watch comments and discussions by students already on the programme, as well as recently graduated students who are already in industry. This helps to guide your choices, and soon you are working on how exactly you are going to be spending your time in the next few weeks of term.

Together with your Learning Advisor, you complete a quick questionnaire to identify your particular learning style, and based on this, the computer system produces a draft Personalised Learning Plan for you. This comprises the specific lectures that you will attend, the tutorial workshops that are relevant to you, as well as the additional support you need, like postgraduate tutoring support, as well as specific seminars and workshops in which you will work in small groups with other students to cover areas that are of specific concern to you. Soon, you have a detailed week-by-week timetable that optimises your access to university learning resources. This includes optimising your personal life with lecture and workshop attendance, as well as a schedule for self-directed online learning, peer-to-peer student activities, as well as the all-important academic staff contact points.

Soon you turn to discussing your assessment schedule. You are pleasantly surprised that you will not be constrained to sit exams at the end of the year in some large scary hall, alongside hundreds of other students. Rather, there is a bouquet of assessments available for you, and some are optional. Throughout your studies you can take formative assessments available online, in the form of quizzes, or you can take paper-based assessments that require submission to a named academic staff member. For the summative assessments, you can choose to sit them as and when you are ready, and, as in all assessments, these are promptly marked, and an academic sits down with you to give you one-on-one feedback on your performance, and on your future progress.

You enquire when you will be able to complete your degree programme. Your Learning Advisor replies that this is down to you, and the progress that you make. You can choose to work alongside your studies, and you can take time off to spend time in industry pursuing specific projects that are of interest to you. In fact, your time and effort in industry is also assessed and contributes to your progression. If you wish, you can also embark on research in one of the many research groups within the university. In fact, you could embark on doctoral and master level research studies simultaneously with your undergraduate programme. Far-fetched? No, after all, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame was already taking graduate level courses in computing prior to enrolling for undergraduate studies at Harvard.

How does this vision for tomorrow compare to the current undergraduate scenario? Vastly futuristic, you would think, until it dawns on you that present-day enrollment and study procedures have remained remarkably unchanged despite advances in technology. In fact, if a 1950’s student turned up to a typical university campus, he or she would not be too lost, apart from the fact that where before there was loads of paperwork to read and complete, nowadays most university work is mediated via computer technology. Just as in the in the 1950’s , students entering an undergraduate programme today typically sign up for the same introductory courses, attend the same lectures and tutorial workshop sessions, do the same coursework, submit it by the same deadline, sit the same exams at the same time, and wait to progress to the next stage at the same time.

Which leaves you wondering: are our undergraduate learning and teaching procedures still fit for purpose? Surely, given the advent of Internet technologies, and advances in learning technologies, there must be a better way to personalise our learning experiences.

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