Choose your own adventure: Personalized pathways in post-secondary
The theme of Athabasca University’s (AU) 50th anniversary is Beyond 50. We want to look forward to the next 50 years and imagine what the future of learning might hold. How will higher education institutions like AU adapt to new technologies and new modes of teaching? How do we create programs that will suit the needs of our learners in the next 10 or 20 years?
This is the second part of a four-part Future of Learning series. The series explores current trends that are shaping education for tomorrow, featuring the next generation work that AU’s professors are doing today. You can also read part one, part three, and part four.
Customization is key. And at a time when you can personalize everything from your Amazon experience to your dating prospects, it seems only reasonable to ask: why can’t students “swipe right” on their course-load? Why can’t a degree be structured around what someone wants to learn, instead of what’s traditionally part of the program?
In other words, is it possible to choose your own adventure in a university environment?
As we head toward a new era of radical personalization, these questions are central to higher education. Where the focus was once on what someone learned, now it’s also about how and why they learn. The idea is that when students have agency over their education, it becomes more relevant to their individual needs and goals.
“The standardized, one-size-fits-all approach isn’t even remotely consistent with what we’ve learned about individuality in all other aspects of our lives,” says Todd Rose, a Professor at Harvard University and leading expert on personalized learning. “The purpose of higher education has to be the development of the individual to fulfill a productive life.”
The promise of personalized learning has already attracted some of the biggest names in education philanthropy, including Mark Zuckerberg and the Gates Foundation. It’s also being explored at every level of Athabasca University (AU), where the legacy of inclusive, personalized education dates back 50 years.
In North America, most formal degree programs adhere to a prescribed curriculum, to ensure equivalencies across institutions. But increasingly, we’re seeing personalization within the structure of those programs. This approach often uses smart software to tailor lessons, resources, supports, and assignments to learners’ strengths and interests, empowering them to choose their own path and pace.
Suddenly, learning isn’t just about gaining competencies but also confidence.
“We need more rigor, and to know that students have mastered the material,” says Rose, co-founder of the think tank Populace. “Learning should be the variable, not time spent in a classroom.” AU allows follows that principle in the Learning Framework, by recognizing that learning can happen anywhere, and is developing a model to follow suit.
Reaching the ‘Unreachable’
Research into personalized learning began in 1984, when educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom sought to replicate the effectiveness of one-on-one tutoring. Bloom found students with personalized instruction outperformed 98 per cent of their counterparts and hoped to afford similar advantages to larger groups.
With modern advancements in technology, Bloom’s dream is increasingly attainable—particularly at an open, online university like AU. And the more we can take an “education for all” approach, the better we can reach people previously locked out of higher learning due to finances, learning disabilities, family circumstances, and other barriers.
“We need to reach the ‘unreachable,’” says Dr. Mohamed Ally, an Athabasca University Professor and Researcher at the Technology Enhanced Learning Institute. “It’s about taking education to the learner, rather than bringing the learner to education.”
At AU, nearly three quarters of students work while they study. A self-directed, mobile-learning approach increases their freedom to learn in non-traditional settings and prevents them from being held back or moving forward too early. And by adding elements of personalization—customizing assignments based on interests and strengths, for example—Ally says learners are more motivated and engaged.
“If we can relate learning materials to their job context, it makes it so much more meaningful to them,” says Ally. “But personalized learning is not only about adapting the content to the learner; it’s also about adapting the support for the learner.”
To illustrate, he points to a project in China where machine-learning software evaluates students as they progress, pairing them with appropriate supports and tutors along the way. Teachers then have highly personalized knowledge of how to help each student meet their goals.
“This level of personalization will become much easier with 5G technology,” says Ally. “In the future, each student could have a hologram of their tutor sitting next to them, helping them one–to–one.” It may sound far-fetched to some but in the context of how much technology has changed in just the last five years, nothing is impossible.
Beyond Place, Beyond Now
‘Personalized’ and ‘mobile learning’ mean different things to different people. But most definitions share the same traits: self-paced programs with competency-based progression; allowance for different learning styles; multiple channels of delivery and access, regardless of the learner’s location; and an emphasis on targeted instruction relevant to the learner’s goals and interests.
It’s about taking ownership of the learning experience, outside the paradigm of a classroom but still within the supportive structure of a teacher-student relationship. And mobile technology is what allows for that.
“When we talk about going ‘beyond place, beyond now’ at AU, this is what it is: it’s learning across spaces, places, and timeframes—and preferably self-determined spaces, places, and timeframes,” says Dr. Agnieszka Palalas, Assistant Professor in AU’s Centre for Distance Learning. “But for learning to be effective, it has to be focused and intentional.”
You can’t simply move higher education to a smartphone and assume people will learn on the bus or waiting in line at the grocery store.
“The focus must be on the mobile learner, not the mobile device,” says Palalas, who advocates for a blended–learning approach where students can choose different platforms based on the situation. This could include wearable technologies, artificial intelligence, phones, and even disconnecting from technology completely.
A New Generation
A national survey by Northeastern University found nearly three in four members of Generation Z (those born in 1995 or later) believe they should be allowed to design their own course of study or major. Indeed, related research shows this cohort—which makes up 17.6 per cent of Canada’s population—is laser-focused on taking charge of their future and charting their own path.
Gen Z is also more likely to question educational models rooted in tradition versus what makes sense for their lives. For example, having to take a course on philosophy or anthropology to achieve a degree in mechanical engineering.
The dilemma for higher education then becomes: how do you reconcile personalized pathways with the structure of a degree? How do you choose your own adventure?
Harvard’s Rose believes the answer is a combination of standardized requirements and interest-based electives. He foresees a system where professional organizations decide what it means to be qualified—for example, passing the bar exam to be a lawyer—and universities allow learners greater flexibility to determine how they achieve that competency, and at what pace.
“Individuality matters,” says Rose. “Schools that can harness that will achieve more, and do more, than in a standardized system.”