EdTech disruption in HE will push personalised learning

Historically, education wasn’t a right, it was a privilege. Afforded only by the better off, it took the form of personalised tutoring. The ancient Greek senators would employ a philosopher to educate and prepare their sons for the world of Greek democracy.

Your tutor would prepare you for life – their path entirely personalised to you. This highly individualised form of education was the status quo until the start of the industrial revolution when education started to become democratised and available to the masses.

In Britain, it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the government established free, compulsory education and the Education Act 1870 heralded the start of the modern education system. Schools were built nationwide and school boards had to guarantee attendance for all children.

In the realm of higher education in Britain, University College London and King’s College London became the first colleges open to all followed by Durham University. Six new public universities, known as ‘red bricks’, were founded in England towards the end of the 19th century in the major industrial cities.

So as schools and universities were built, classrooms and lecture theatres were filled to teach the masses, educating tomorrow’s workforce.

However, ‘education for all’ meant the loss of personalised learning. Where a lecturer once had the time and resources to tailor to all of your learning needs, they had to teach an entire class at a lock-step pace. This was the point in the history of education when the onus shifted from the lecturer to the learner. It was no longer the lecturer’s fault if you didn’t learn, it was now down to you to make sure you studied and revised in your own time.

Though students might disagree, the move to making students responsible for their own learning is one of the great successes in the history of education.

But what happened to personalised learning? With all the technology available to us as a result of the digital revolution, can’t we provide unique and highly individualised learning to the students in our cohorts?

Learning tools

Apps, websites and platforms have opened up a whole new world for lecturers and learners. Where students had to once struggle through difficult topics on their own in the library, rely on the help of their friends or possibly join a long queue of requests to see a tutor, now they can be pointed in the direction of a wealth of digital learning resources.

Universities now make extensive use of Virtual Learning Environments, such as Blackboard, Moodle and Learnium, to share resources with learners, which can be used both within and outside of lessons.

The days of paper-based submissions are long gone. Students now use online journals to research their assignments and word processing software, spreadsheet creators and presentation tools to create their assignments. With online submission, the learner avoids unnecessary issues such as missing the deadline because of the printer breaking down or the queue to the submission office being too long.

But this is by no means as far as technology can take us in the learning process. With the onset of Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Smart Metrics, surely there is more that can be done to make the learning process even more personalised to each learner?

Intelligent data

Modern technology has enabled students to use apps and software to learn and be tested on their learning. This has become almost standard and is no longer revolutionary. However, what is really pushing the boundaries is the smart data that these apps and software can now utilise and process.

Using intelligent algorithms, software is being produced with the capability to create a bespoke learning pathway for each student – treating them as an individual scholar. This not only provides learners with the input required, then tests them on it, it also starts determining what you do and don’t need to learn based on your performance.

Where a lecturer would once have had a one-on-one tutorial with a student to determine how well they knew a topic, this can now be achieved through the development of intelligent software, advanced algorithms and smart metrics.

Data analytics will be able to assess a student’s needs, highlighting shortcomings and making study recommendations. Lecturers will have insights into each student’s progress, creating a learning plan tailored specifically for them, meaning that students will once again learn as individuals with a bespoke learning journey.

These advances are currently being developed, but it’s only a matter of time before it makes its way into mainstream education.

Social learning

With the onset of mobile devices, it’s become a social expectation that everyone now has a smart phone with connectivity at their fingertips. This has led to students taking learning to a new level, driven by social interactions through online channels which can be invaluable for higher education bodies.

However, the channels are largely dark. For instance, two students may share photos of a missed slide on WhatsApp or discuss the issues raised in a group message on Facebook. However, the lecturer is unaware of the sharing, or the quality, because the channel is unavailable to them.

Social and mobile adds another dimension to the learning experience, driven by students, which universities need to be able to channel. The student demand is evident – they’re already behaving in this way, creating a community of mobile learners; sharing limitless messages, images, voice notes and even videos to individual or groups of contacts.

It allows seminar or study cohorts to replicate offline group learning online, gaining quicker access to information than if waiting for a weekly meeting, or trawling the internet for answers. If lecturers can be part of facilitating this, they can guide the learning process and offer valuable input.

Moving the conversations from useful but unregulated and unconnected channels – for instance, an essay discussion group on WhatsApp, plus a shared Google document – to a Social Learning Network will improve visibility for administrators and tutors, not to mention streamline the workload and reduce the risk of misunderstanding for the students.

Higher education needs to keep up if it wants to be part of the conversation and take advantage of the opportunity to further enhance the learning experience.

The future

Technology has played a major part in the evolution of education. Over the last decade, major advancements have been made as higher education institutions adopt new technology. But social, mobile and personalised learning have the potential to completely disrupt higher education.

The EdTech revolution is only in its infancy. Will this mean the end of the one-size-fits-all model of education? Maybe, maybe not. But, what is certain, is that it will push the personalised learning agenda once again. We’ll finally see the return of personalised tuition facilitated by technology which will improve student experience and, potentially, performance.

Robert Dragan is CEO of online learning platform developers Learnium.