Personalization Tools for More Successful Learning: Part I

The next two blogs will address opportunities to harness the tools of the new universe of learning, both academic and support services, to support and sustain more successful personalized learning.

A continuing problem that has plagued American higher education since the “access revolution” was launched in the 1960’s are high attrition rates. The open door has, too often, been a revolving door. Over the years, we have learned a great deal about how to support success for previously marginalized and older learners. And yet, many of our institutions still have attrition rates of 50% or higher. And the hard truth is that the more risk factors (as defined by the United States Department of Education) a learner brings, the greater the chance that she will not persist academically.

These risk factors, such as being low income, a single parent, or unemployed, have no bearing on a person’s intelligence or capacity to learn. They do, however, have an impact on learners’ ability to “stay the course” and achieve their academic goals. In fact, attrition is more often driven by non-academic factors than academic issues. I believe that one of the most significant opportunities inherent in the new universe of learning is the ability to personalize each person’s learning path, tying them tightly to their reasons for beginning and the rewards for successful completion. This increased personal connection to the journey they are on will increase persistence.

When I refer to personalized learning in a digital world, I am not assuming that there will be a unique learning plan for each learner. In fact, you could have a single academic model for 10,000 learners and still, using data analytics and other e-services, have a personalized approach for each. Although different people might come up with a slightly different list of the elements in a personalized approach, I will discuss mine in the rest of this blog and the next.

The Academic GPS. An over-arching need of previously marginalized learners is to know the answers to these questions:

  • why am I returning to school?
  • what do I already know?
  • what will I need to do, specifically, to succeed?
  • how long will it take?
  • how much will it cost?

Think of it as positioning the learner using an academic GPS to locate their current position and chart out the path to their destination coupled with focused advising along the way. Some of the following elements will contribute to this positioning.

Evaluating and Valuing All Prior Learning. In the new universe, learners will be returning to school, or coming for the first time, at different points throughout life. A critical component of the “onboarding” process will be an accurate, timely, and informative assessment of all the learning they bring with them. Not only is this a fair approach, it also places the learner at the appropriate point on her learning journey, saving time and money. Importantly, if it is done well, this assessment clarifies for each learner what they already know, which can be a significant confidence-builder.

Learning and Behavior. Every person is born with a distinct way that they process information. There are short analyses, such as Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, which give the learner important information about their inherent learning traits. This, in turn, is critical information which helps them understand when they are entering a learning situation, or considering a career, either of which might, because of its structure, requirements, or mode, be intrinsically difficult for them.

Getting well positioned at the beginning of the learning journey, knowing how you learn, what you know, and what you need to learn to achieve your goals are critical to improving academic quality and program completion in the new universe.

We know that a significant percentage of all attrition happens during the first two terms, or their equivalent. And we also know that the reasons for leaving are, more often than not, non-academic. Getting off to a strong start with the GPS and a closer understanding of learning behaviors will encourage learners to work through non-academic issues more successfully.

What other early experiences do you think will strengthen chances for success?

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