At The Heart of Learning

Efficiency, empathy and empowerment in personalized learning for higher education. 

GUEST COLUMN | by James Caras 

CREDIT Macmillan Learning

Personalized learning offers the benefits of delivering customized instruction and learning paths to students based upon a learner profile generated as a student engages with a digital learning solution. It has been highlighted as one of the most important developments in educational technology. In higher education, we are increasingly seeing innovation and inclusion of personalized learning within digital learning solutions provided by publishers and edtech companies alike. Faculty are engaging in experimentation and early adoption of this technology, especially within the early foundational courses.

Why Now?

In the recently released Higher Education Horizon Report from the New Media Consortium (NMC), adaptive learning was highlighted as one of the report’s ‘Important Developments in Educational Technology for Higher Education’, with an expected time to

Students and faculty must remain able to develop their metacognitive and pedagogical skills while incorporating technology as an assistant to the overall learning process.

adoption of one year or less. The NMC’s senior director of publications and communications, Samantha Becker, mirroring of the optimism in the market, has said: “The ability for machines to be programmed to recognize the nuances of human behaviors and emotions associated with learning — and respond accordingly — is particularly exciting. As courses and activities are increasingly held online, there is a demand for more personalization and more sophisticated interactions.”


However, many faculty are experiencing challenges as they look to implement personalized learning within their courses. Besides having to use a blended learning model, in which class-time is divvied up between traditional and electronic learning, teaching faculty must be willing to let students progress at their own pace. They need to allow software provide input as to what students should learn next, leveraging the quantitative data on student performance gathered by the software and couple it with the teacher’s own qualitative expertise. Personalized learning is not a “set it and forget it” panacea, and if not implemented correctly, it can potentially de-skill faculty and disempower both students and instructors.

Personalized and adaptive learning solutions are just emerging, and the optimism expressed by the Horizon Report has recently been checked by an April 2016 SRI Education report “Lessons Learned From Early Implementations of Adaptive Courseware.” The SRI report compiled studies from many universities and personalized learning solutions, and yielded underwhelming evidence of educational efficacy for these early adopters. In these studies, personalized learning showed no impact on course completion and either small or zero gains in overall course grades. However, shifting from a traditional lecture format to blended personalized learning showed a positive impact on standard post-tests.


To take full advantage of the learning benefits of personalized learning solutions, instructors are encouraged to shift from the stand-in-the-front-of-the-room-and-lecture model, and instead enable a more intimate, personalized instruction to the students. This includes backwards design of a course around a set of learning goals, moving classroom instruction to focus attention where students are most struggling, grouping students to help each other succeed, and carving out classroom time for active learning and group work activities. In short, successful use of personalized learning software requires active engagement by skilled and experienced educators who can evolve and refine the use of these promising technologies within their classes over time.

To accomplish this, the creators of personalized learning systems who focus so much on the student must also inform and empower the instructor to leverage new best teaching practices enabled by this approach. Personalized learning systems must be created from a pedagogical perspective, with the instructor at the heart of learning and the software as a strong support in the process.

Key principles for maximizing personalized learning systems are:

  1. Enable strong instructor interaction and control. Integrating student and instructor feedback enables instructors to distinguish between the nuances of superficial human error and deeper, conceptual misunderstandings.
  2. Integrate software tools with appropriate curriculum design. The instructor needs to be able to customize the software to their lesson plan and summative assessments. Instill confidence in instructors to make full use of customizable software. A great way to integrate software with curriculum and syllabi is through meaningful instructor curriculum design and implementation support via high fidelity training models
  3. Extend the “class” beyond the classroom. Use personalized learning tools to more effectively integrate homework time into the learning process – enabling increased engagement with key content. In education, we often talk about learning outcomes and gains. Yet, a key component missing in this discussion is the concept of learning efficiency. Time is a precious commodity for both students and instructors. Technology helps to make learning more efficient in any given semester or quarter.
  4. Use technology to enable instructors to focus on the ‘personal’ part of ‘personalized learning’. This is where empathy comes into sharp focus. With learning happening both inside and outside of class time coupled with rich analytics from tech, instructors can spend more time mentoring and coaching students. If leveraged properly, adaptive learning systems can foster an even deeper connection between the instructor and the learner. Moreover, technology helps strengthen the connection between learning efficiency and empathy.
  5. Learn and evolve. For the software provider, active engagement with faculty in curriculum design and implementation, leads to rapid product iteration and communication of new best practices. This will fuel continuous improvement within this new field of personalized learning with the goal of showing undeniable learning gains.


We need personalized learning systems that seamlessly adapt to student’s learning preferences and instructor’s teaching preferences. However, if either students or instructors are neglected in this process, the software is then of little help. Students and faculty must remain able to develop their metacognitive and pedagogical skills while incorporating technology as an assistant to the overall learning process.

A balance must be struck between computer intervention and human thinking as students must be actively involved in progressing their own understanding instead of simply relying on machine guidance. Adaptive and personalized systems must augment and empower, not replace or disempower, the work of instructors. Software providers must partner with faculty and institutions to mature the associated technology and pedagogy. Done right, there are tremendous opportunities for these technologies to empower teachers, broaden their agency and improve their teaching skills.

James Caras is Chief Product Officer at Macmillan Learning.


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