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Personalisation in Blended Learning

Part 1: Making contact

In the next instalments of this series on blended learning, Dr. Mark Spokes explores the most essential elements of personalisation in education. There are precarious false paths that must be avoided in the pursuit of this “holy grail” of learning, particularly the propensity to favour technological advances over the thoughtful integration of online learning with effective teaching in face-to-face interactions. This series of blogs explains how blended learning can be designed and developed for a differentiated and personalised education that is truly transformative.

People are just as wonderful as sunsets if I can let them be. In fact, perhaps the reason we can truly appreciate a sunset is that we cannot control it. When I look at a sunset as I did the other evening, I don’t find myself saying, “Soften the orange a little on the right hand corner, and put a bit more purple along the base, and use a little more pink in the cloud color.” I don’t do that. I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch it with awe as it unfolds.

Carl R. Rogers

Teaching Sophia
Sophia always reminds me of how wonderful learners can be. She messaged me recently, as she does from time to time, with another update on life after graduation. Some time has passed since I taught Sophia, but I am still appreciative of this experience, particularly one special moment that we shared in her final class. It was certainly a long and difficult journey to get there. Sophia still cuts the same shy figure, who first appeared in my office for academic supervision.

Just a few weeks into her first term of a four-year undergraduate program, Sophia sat down at my desk already determined to leave. That initial meeting lasted well beyond our scheduled time. Sophia spoke at speed and length about her experience at university so far and how it interacted with her Asperger syndrome.

It did not take long for me to appreciate the scope and scale of the challenge that Sophia faced. Despite her demonstrable academic potential, Sophia expressed anxiety about seeing, hearing and feeling the world differently to her new peers. She worried deeply that everyone else in the class understood the content that she continued to struggle with. Her large survey classes offered few, if any, opportunities to interact with others and discuss their experiences, so Sophia now felt lost and alone amidst a vast sea of strange faces.

The final straw seemed to have been the meeting she had just attended of the group assigned to work together on their first assessed task. Sophia spoke forlornly about how she felt ignored throughout the meeting and not accepted as an equal participant in the group.

Sophia had come to the conclusion that the problem rested with her and the only recourse was to give up. It was clear to me that she just lacked suitable personal support. Sophia became easily frustrated in her lecture-based classes without being able to stop teachers and ask questions when they did not make any sense to her. The virtual learning environment provided some opportunities for her to move through content at her own pace and in her own time between classes. However, Sophia had become more discouraged trying to navigate her way through vast amounts of material without clear guidance or personal support.

The classes relied upon preset multiple-choice tests to enable learners to check their own knowledge of the content, but this only added to Sophia’s distress when she had no one to help her understand the reasons for low scores. Sophia had been unable to arrange even the briefest of meetings with her teachers to talk about her situation.

For all the discussions within the institution around personalisation of learning, this still remained a commercial program, where teachers received little time or resources that would help them to notice the emotional wellbeing of students, let alone respond effectively. Most teachers struggled to thrive alongside their students and often learned to survive the heavy demands of the program by preparing and delivering generalised content for their approximation of the “average” learner. Unfortunately, this ensured that classes rarely fit the needs of most learners. They certainly did not suit Sophia.
A promise to work together with Sophia to find an approach to teaching and learning that could meet her personal needs meant that she agreed (if hesitantly, at first) to stick with her program a little longer. Over the following years, Sophia and I probably shared as many setbacks as successes, but through our joint experiments, we did eventually develop an approach that both worked for her and allowed me to pass on principles to help other teachers and learners. Much of my own understanding of how to craft a perfect blend of learning that is differentiated and personalised has come from these kinds of collaborative endeavours.

Personalised learning

An appreciation of the diverse needs of unique individuals is the means to creating a truly accessible and education for all. Sadly, many institutions have been reluctant to support such efforts and really get to know each of their learners. This is certainly to the detriment of all, but it can be catastrophic for the likes of Sophia. Michael Bérubé, an expert in disability studies at Pennsylvania State University, has defined ableism as the distance that most people put between themselves and disability. Sophia struggled to adapt to the distance she encountered in her ableist classrooms.

The institutional response to the challenges that Sophia faced was to just emphasise the technological “solutions”. Solutions focused on the generation of enhanced learning analytics in the virtual learning environment that would be available to help teachers monitor her progress. However, these advances alone could not ensure a personalisation of learning and often only served to further generalise learning. In the context of this commercialised program, the growing complexity and amount of information being analysed focused on regulating and normalising learners in relation to their achievement of standardised sets of cognitive and behavioural learning outcomes.

A data-driven approach labelled and distanced learners like Sophia from their own experiences. It did not measure the full extent of her experience, whether the quality of her interactions within the classroom and the virtual learning environment or just her confidence that depended upon a sense of belonging in them.

Personalised learning requires meaningful contact. In his examination of more than 800 metastudies of effective education, involving over 50 million students, John Hattie discovered that interventions are often popular in education. He related to the likes of class size, learning environments, or assessment methods, having far less impact on learning than the close contact with an effective mentor.

Learners often feel that seeing the world in new ways contains real risk. Each has their own proximal zone of comfort­, or space where they feel safe. Moving beyond this can lead to insecurity. But a skilled mentor can act as a guide. They help learners take risks in exploring these frontiers and to cross a bridge between the different ways of knowing the world, leading to larger spaces to roam freely.

Instead of attempting to control or drive change in learners, mentoring requires a focus on creating a climate for learners to come to know themselves. For Sophia and I, the first steps just meant asking: who is Sophia and what does it mean to her to be Sophia? A better understanding of what being in the world might mean for Sophia enabled me to join her on this journey and watch with awe as it unfolded.

The next blogs in this series explore how to develop meaningful contact between teacher and learner. Carl Rogers described this as essential for a personalised approach to education, and I discovered it to be the key to crafting the perfect blend of online and face-to-face learning.

For a free consultation on blended or online learning, or if there are any other topics you’d like us to cover in our blogs, leave a comment or get in touch.

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