The Study Dude—Personalized Education?

What would a personalized education look like to you?

Well, let’s look at scenarios that don’t characterize a personalized education:

A developmentally disabled student once appeared in my university class.  He could barely spell basic words.  But he was entitled to an education.  Sadly, the prof would humiliate him, scorning him for his lack of performance.  In my view, shame should never happen in education.

On the flipside, imagine a brilliant student who excels at math, but misses out on a big concept.  As a result, she falls behind until she fails her first test.  Later, she toys with dropping her math program.

A personalized education would not lead to author Jeffrey J. Selingo stating “The Internet allows any of us to watch lectures by star professors from around the world as many times as we need to master a concept.  So why take a class with a mediocre professor droning on, especially if we never have a chance to ask him to repeat a section of the lecture we didn’t quite understand” (p. 76 of 238, 30%).  I can’t be inspired to enroll in a university program in design.  Why should I?  I can buy, instead, a ten-hour illustrator course online for around ten dollars.  And I can stop and revisit the video whenever needed.

So, if a droning professor doesn’t characterize a personalized education, then what does? “Companies like Netflix and Amazon suggest movies or products by comparing us to similar customers.  Google and Facebook target advertisements based on what we’re reading in our email messages or in wall posts from friends” (p.  73 of 238, 29%).  So, a personalized education would zero in on your interests and strengths.  And it would help you ration your courses amongst your top passions.  And, as your interests evolved, your recommended courses would shift, too.  “We have used this technology for years to help us with mundane choices like picking out your next movie from Netflix, but not to help a student select the right college or pass a class needed for a degree” (29%).

What would you call such a personalized degree?  What would a degree that’s about 30% design, 20% health and fitness, 40% marketing, and 10% other be?  Those are my passions, and that would be my degree.  There would be no more need for electives or majors, either.  Your creativity might skyrocket, too.  At least, that’s what’s believed to happen when students take interdisciplinary studies.  But if you wanted to go into grad studies, you’d just increase the percentage of your specialization.

But a personalized education is more than that.  One example is a math course that was powered by “Knewton, an adaptive learning technology that watches a student’s every click and then adjusts on the fly what it delivers next ….  When [the student] gets stuck on a problem related to linear functions, he’s pulled into a tutoring lesson.  His screen reminds me of Facebook and the software has the feel of a video game” (29%).

This form of personalized education could lead to “no student left behind.”  “Every year … about one in ten first-year students arrive on campus unprepared to do math, so they need to take an extra course to brush up on the concepts they should have learned in high school.  The university hasn’t had much success with these students in the past.  Most of them either couldn’t get out of the remedial class or ended up later failing their first math course” (29%).

But no-one should fail.  Except universities don’t provide enough resources for all students to succeed.  For instance, many students enroll in math classes without the background.  They may have taken math years ago, even decades ago—and forgot it all.  So, they risk failing.  Consider me: I took nearly ten advanced university math classes, scoring the top mark in almost every class.  But I now can’t recall first year math.  Consider this, also: I later took an anatomy course without any biology background.  Zilch.  And that’s where my grade was heading, so I dropped the class.  My dream dashed because I lacked the background.

That’s where personalized education comes into play.  The “hope is that Knewton can help guide more students through these introductory courses so they are no longer viewed as places where freshman sink or swim” (29%).  Knewton could detect your missing background and tutor you accordingly.  No fear of failure here.

Besides, learning is supposed to be fun, right?

You have a right to master your passions.  And you, unquestionably, should have the right to graduate.  Yet, too few students graduate while too many suffer enormous student debt.   Given the time and effort we invest, personalized education needs to make our learning fail-proof, shame-proof, and fun.

Selingo, Jeffrey J. (2013). College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Edication and What It Means for Students. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. E-book.