The idea of using technology to personalize education for each individual learner has been around since the early days of Computer Based Training. These early devices could track a learner’s answers to quiz questions and then deliver additional materials based on the questions missed which was a major improvement in those days. However, modern Learning Management Systems (LMSs) can do much more and have many new tools for personalizing online learning.
What does personalization mean? While many definitions exist, the US National Educational Technology Plan definition is available online. In usage here, it means providing adjustments to what is learned, the pace at which learning happens and the methods of learning based on students’ needs and performance. The personalization suggestions below also solve another common problem – that online students feel isolated and disconnected – by making the online learning experience feel more personal and interactive.
Customize Communications with Personal News Items
A great strategy that makes an online class feel much more personal and interactive is to create news items that respond immediately to the student as they complete tasks in the course. An example would be a news item (announcement that appears on the course home page) acknowledging that a student has passed a quiz (or not), submitted a dropbox assignment, posted to a discussion topic, etc. These pre-programmed news items can even have the student’s name automatically inserted and have a link to the next set of materials or assignments.
When I tried this in my own online course, I got very positive feedback from the students. They said it felt like someone was paying attention and cared that they were doing their work in the class. One student even said, “Wow, you must be online 24/7. I took my quiz at 2 am last night and as soon as I finished there was a message from you saying that I passed!” The good news is that if you build these custom news items once, they can be copied from course to course and semester to semester. So, while it feels very personal and responsive to the student, it actually saves the instructor time and effort. Now, that is a win/win!!
Provide Optional Materials and Activities
Modern Learning Environments provide tools called “release conditions” that allow instructors to make content materials or other online tools available to students based on their performance or previous activities rather than by dates and times. These options can deliver remediation materials only to students who need them based on criteria such as performance on tests or other assignments. Similarly, instructors can deliver enrichment materials only to those students who are demonstrating mastery of the basic required materials in the course.
Allow Students to Choose Notification Methods
Most LMSs provide multiple ways that students can be notified about announcements or other course related events. For example, the newest version of the Desire2Learn® Learning Suite provides many options for students for how they prefer to be contacted and notified about what is going on in the course. It is an opt-in system where they can choose to receive an email or a text message about news items, upcoming deadlines, replies to their discussion postings, etc. Or they can see what has happened in the course since they were last there in the Updates widget (if this has been added to the Course Home page).
Provide a Cafeteria Menu of Assignments
Another method of personalizing an online course is to provide students with some flexibility in how they demonstrate that they have achieved the required learning objectives. This could mean having a menu of assignment choices so that students can choose to write a paper, give an oral presentation, create a video, develop a case study, or other appropriate “deliverable” that demonstrates their skills and knowledge. This can also enable students to choose which technology tools they prefer to use. This is easy to do using release conditions and doesn’t cause a lot of complication in the gradebook either.
Give Students Personal Deadlines and Time Limits
It is quite easy in an online environment to give a student, with a legitimate reason, an extension on an assignment without affecting other students. This custom date can appear in the student’s personal course calendar but no one else will know that they have a different deadline. Similarly, it is much easier now to accommodate your students with special needs who require extra time on an exam without impacting other students or causing a lot of hassle in the gradebook for the instructor. Janna Cameron’s earlier blog entry had other comments on students with special needs.
In future blog postings, I’ll add to these strategies with some additional ideas for helping students succeed, keeping students honest and thinking for themselves, and overcoming student anxiety in online courses.