First blocks of a customised campus

May 12, 2006

A personalised service works wonders for Lego, but will the same tactic benefit students? asks Jessica Shepherd

Bosses at Lego had a brainwave last September. Why not continue to mass produce the famous brick-shaped toys for an ever-growing number of enthusiasts while allowing Lego junkies to create their own designs and order the bricks they need online?

It appears that the 73-year-old company has hit on the building blocks for success: online sales are predicted to rise by up to 10 per cent this year, and Lego is a company that now seems very much in touch with its customers' wishes.

In business speak, this kind of approach is called "mass customisation"; in education jargon, it is known as "personalised learning". Like most marketing and political catchphrases, it is hard to define, but these are some of its key features: 

* Universities teach "en masse" while responding to students' specific needs

* Smaller tuition groups are used to make all students feel "valued"

* Online teaching programmes guide students at their own pace with more choice and feedback

* A belief that degree work can be done as well at home and on the train as on campus

* Students are taught how to learn and lecturers are encouraged to match "learning styles" to the needs of a student (in schools, neuroscience has been used to show how pupils' brains develop at different rates)

* Lecturers are encouraged to invite students to track their progress on the internet and to promote the idea of personal development plans

* Greater consideration is given to students' welfare, cultures and personalities.

Personalised learning is not without its critics. Some educationists believe that under the initiative lecturers will be expected to double as welfare officers and that universities will turn into schools for adults. Many think it is just the latest in a long line of empty catchphrases that have promised a new dawn for UK education but delivered little substance.

Nonetheless, personalised learning is now the buzzword in schools policy - a recent report for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, for example, includes a paper on individualised learning by no less than David Miliband, one of Labour's leading lights. And Tony Blair used the phrase in his address to the annual Labour Party conference in September 2003 - a time of particular gloom when a new idea was needed to perk up the ranks.

So what exactly does personalised learning mean for educationists?

The first reaction from many teachers in schools that have embarked on personalised learning has been exasperation. Critics say it is unrealistic to expect already overstretched teachers to devote time to personalised learning.

But Liz Beaty, director of learning and teaching at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, thinks that such critics have missed the point. She believes personalised learning in higher education will go some way towards overhauling the idea of a university.

"Personalised learning does not have to mean a student won't go into the university building, but it will get rid of the restrictions of time and location. It will re-establish how flexible a course can be," she says.

"Students will be able to study at home more, there will be more integration between working time, leisure time and home time. It will allow us all to be more flexible." She thinks students with children, with learning difficulties and with English as a second language will be among the first to benefit.

She says: "Personalised learning can be as simple as putting essay questions online or as sophisticated as diagnosing a student's specific difficulty and offering online support.

"Some international students will find it easier to interact with other students in an online seminar because they can go at their own pace and consider carefully how to phrase things," she adds.

At Coventry University, personalised learning is to some extent already under way. As a bare minimum, academics must put lecture topics and a reading list online.

Paul Blackmore, director of Coventry's Centre for Higher Education Development, says the initiative has helped students take more interest in their learning. "Personalised learning is not principally about offering students a range of products to choose from. Students are producers as much as they are consumers. At the heart of education has to be a commitment to encourage students to be intellectually curious, learn independently and self-evaluate. These are central to personalised learning. "Both universities and schools seek to do this. We are not turning universities into schools; we continue the process that schools begin. In universities, we expect greater independence and offer a research-like environment."

Max Coates, programme manager of the London Centre for Leadership and Learning at the Institute of Education, is co-author of Personalised Learning: Transforming Education for Every Child . He argues that one of the best aspects of personalised learning is its emphasis on how students learn. He says: "Personalisation is about starting by asking 'how does this person learn', not 'what does this person need to learn'. We have been considering education in terms of batch production for too long.

"By understanding individual learning styles, we can ensure that students become flexible learners. Up to 90 per cent of what we teach will be out of date in six years, so students must understand how they learn in order to learn, unlearn and re-learn."

Coates says students who have information at their disposal 24/7 may not be satisfied attending hour-long lectures at set times with hundreds of others. "With personalised learning comes more of a mix and match of subjects and more modules," he says.

Students seem to agree. Colin Rote, who is studying management at Coventry, says the university's use of online learning environments tailored to individuals means "you can keep in close contact with others on the course who can offer advice or guidance".

Eamon Martin, academic registrar at City University, thinks increasing numbers of students will expect this kind of support. "There will be a greater flexibility in terms of courses, and students will be able to build their own programmes of study," he says.

"Personalised learning will mean more educational mentors in universities.

This will ease the transition between school and university for students, rather than turn universities into imitation schools."

Not so, says Gary Day, principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University, who believes that personalised learning will fail students in the long term. "It makes universities reach down to students rather than encouraging students to grow and reach up to university standards. It is definitely about turning universities into schools and all about keeping students as customers. Having education tailored to someone's gender, sexuality and culture is indulging their sense of themselves under the mistaken impression that it will play up to a student's strengths. If a student needs individual attention, we go and talk to them. Most students don't talk to us in the time we allocate for them anyway," he says.

Helene Guldberg, an associate lecturer in child development at the Open University, thinks it is unhelpful to attach a particular learning style to a student.

She says: "My concerns about personalised learning are the lack of empirical evidence for its effectiveness and the weakness of its theoretical base. But my main worry is that it could solidify and accentuate differences between students."

It is a worry shared by Philip Beadle, the star of Channel 4's The Unteachables . Beadle, a former secondary school head-turned-education writer, says: "Personalised learning is stupid. It is physically impossible to know the learning style of all your students, and I don't believe children's learning styles are down to neuroscientific hokum anyway. The best way to learn is to have a balance of teaching methods. This is a government sop to appear cutting edge to parents."

For many, though, the tenets behind personalised learning are nothing new: it just repackages what good teachers have been doing for years and marries them with the possibilities presented by new technology.

One thing seems sure, though. If other services are becoming increasingly individualised - whether it is designing your own Lego creation or having access to walk-in National Health Service clinics - more and more students are likely to demand the same from education.

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