Personalized Learning Seeping into Post-Secondary Education

Personalizing learning is clearly making strategic inroads into K-12 education and especially across the US and in British Columbia, where dedicated educators and administrators are leading the way, helped along by supportive government ministries, organizations, students and parents. Should you seek confirmation on this, and its benefits, look no further than ‘Voyager Weekly’ magazine (online), published by ‘Education Reimagined‘; to wit, the ‘Genie is out of the bottle’ – personalized learning, that is – and it’s a good thing.

In his recent books, ‘The End of Average’, and ‘Dark Horse’, Harvard Education professor Dr. Todd Rose asserts the ‘Age of Personalization’ is emerging in education

A big nut to crack remains post-secondary education where some undergraduate classes swell into the hundreds and professors struggle to learn the names of teaching assistants, let alone students. Factor in all the entrenched, standardized approaches to teaching that characterize university, college, vocational and trades training and you might wonder if it isn’t easier to coax a camel through the eye of a needle than guide this level of education towards personalized approaches.

It turns out, this is happening.

Last week I attended the annual Teaching and Learning conference of Simon Fraser University where, in a plenary wrap-up session, I heard two professors, Criminology professor Dr. Sheri Fabian and Mathematics professor Dr. Veselin Jungic – each a recent recipient of a 3M National Teaching Fellowship award – assert that the most important approaches they use in their classes is to personalize them. In unique ways, each of these professors seek to learn personal characteristics of their students and modify their teaching to optimize students’ learning.

Another panel member, Engineering professor Dr. Kevin Oldknow, awarded an ‘Excellence in Teaching’ award in 2018, emphasized that he seeks to ensure – through careful attunement – that he recognizes varied aspects of humanity arising in his students, to which he responds empathetically through his teaching.

This orientation aligns with the sentiments expressed by professors Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc in their groundbreaking book (2010), ‘The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal’, “The relationships and experiences of our lives – and the lives of our students – are neither irrelevant nor inconsequential – they are building blocks of reality and primary dimensions of our humanity.

Renowned author-educator bell hooks has long been on-board with this. In 2003, writing in ‘Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope‘ (2003), hooks extended the theme of self-nurturance she staked out earlier in her career, proposing a pedagogical ethic reflecting love as a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust to help educators better “respond to the unique concerns of individual students” and thus create conditions for “optimal learning”. In her book, hooks wrote that such “conscious teaching” or “teaching with love“, between teacher and student “makes recognition possible; it offers a place where the intersection of academic striving meets the overall striving to be psychologically whole.”

These sentiments are likewise extended by Harvard education professor and author Dr. Todd Rose, who posits in his 2018 book, ‘Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment‘, the future of post-secondary education lies in addressing the notion of ‘fit’ in which the learning sensibilities of post-secondary learners – their biographies, interests and dispositions – are matched to learning opportunities posed by sensitive institutions and educators.

Rose, director of Harvard’s ‘Brain, Mind and Education’ department and author of the best-selling book (2016) ‘The End of Average‘, relates his own compelling and unique learning trajectory in Dark Horse, and writes further, “In the emerging Age of Personalization, society offers an unprecedented variety of contexts for meaningful human achievement. … with an infinite variety of jagged profiles of talent and a rapidly expanding variety of professional opportunities, there is all but guaranteed to be a great fit your own individuality.

So, you might wonder, where can I check this out and see further evidence that post-secondary institutions may be authentically considering more personalized approaches to learning, beyond the smothering mantle of standardized curriculum?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many exemplars to turn to, but here are a few:

Western Governors University (US) – a student-centric university where all degrees are competency-based.
SelfDesign Graduate Institute (US-based) – now being re-branded as ‘Graduate Institute for Transformative Learning’ (GifToL); online, offering personalized Master’s level degrees (I’m a faculty member and I think it rocks!)
Zoho University (India) – a rockin’ disruption to a traditional post-secondary-to-corporate trajectory; Zoho is a corporation that pays students to learn, while orienting to personal strengths and goals
Swaraj University (India) – this unique, self-directed learning program students invites learners to identify their hearts’ visions and engages them in developing the skills, relationships and practices they need to manifest those visions.

Obviously, personalizing learning at the post-secondary level has not reached ‘tsunami’ stage, but it is happening!

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