The abrupt online transition over the past two years has prompted institutions to make many important realizations. Chief among these is the urgency to build an inclusive and accessible learning environment which addresses students’ diverse needs, mitigates learning barriers, and ensures lasting, meaningful engagement. Personalized learning has emerged as a solution to this challenge, promising to counter the one-size-fits-all mode of instruction with an individualized approach that takes into account each students’ strengths, needs, interests, and skills. But what exactly does personalized learning entail? And how can it be leveraged to meaningfully engage all diverse learners?
What is Personalized Learning?
Personalized learning is an educational approach that aims to address the diversity in students’ learning needs and interests. In this approach, students take ownership of their own learning by constructing their own educational pathway, from learning goals, activities to assessment. According to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE): “Instead of education being something that happens to the learner, it is something that occurs as a result of what the student is doing, with the intent of creating engaged students who have truly learned how to learn.”
In personalized learning, teachers take on the role of facilitators and coaches, guiding students on their learning journey rather than imposing previously-established goals and restrictions. In the spirit of promoting self-evaluation and autonomy, it is the students that are responsible for designing and following their learning paths, with their individual needs and goals in mind. As a result, learning objectives can vary among learners, which, in turn, demands a shift in the approach to assessment as well – instead of prioritizing assessment of learning, personalized learning focuses on assessment for learning, particularly self-reflection and self-evaluation.
The overarching idea is simple, yet powerful: people are most motivated and learn best when their learning is tailored to their individual needs and experiences. By leveraging that fact, personalized learning aims to make learning truly and continuously engaging for all learners.
How to Leverage Personalized Learning for Lasting Engagement
So how can digital tools be leveraged to drive lasting engagement with personalized instruction, especially when hybrid and online learning will persist in the upcoming semesters and beyond? Read on and explore some of the best practices to create personalized learning environments, with the aid of technology.
1. Adopt a minimalist approach to learning design
Personalized learning requires instructors to really understand the diversity in backgrounds, learning preferences and barriers of the students, but the solution it provides differs significantly. Instead of encouraging the adoption of one, universally inclusive course design, it suggests a fully personalized approach. Students are responsible for creating and following their learning journeys, as well as establishing their individual learning goals, in accordance with what is best for them.
With diverse learning journeys, multiple objectives, and varied assessment methods, it is difficult to adopt one standardized learning design. Instead, faculties could consider the Minimalist Theory, according to which the course structure enables students to learn in their own way, at their own pace, without restricting them with previously-established, teacher-set goals. As described by J.M. Carroll , the Minimalist Theory Framework includes 6 key components: a) emphasis on the “self-guided” aspect of learning, b) authentic, real-life activities and examples, c) development of lifelong skills, d) error recognition and recovery, e) emphasizing the relationship between the subject matter and real world applications, f) accounting for the prior knowledge and experience of the learner.
2. Providing continuous, quality feedback
The ultimate goal of personalization is to create an inclusive and accessible learning environment where students can develop their learning path, while staying activated at every step. But to achieve this, students first need to learn how to critically evaluate and reflect on peers’ and their own performance. Feedback is therefore crucial to stimulating such skills.
Quality, descriptive, and actionable feedback guides both instructors and students to identify the knowledge gaps then timely make improvements. Furthermore, feedback should happen at different levels (Task/Product, Process, Self-Regulation and the Self), and from all learning stakeholders (teacher-student, student-student, and self evaluation). So how can technology play a part in issuing quality, multi-layer feedback? FeedbackFruits offers plenty of options:
The Automated Feedback tool harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to provide feedback on students’ academic writing skills. This LMS plug-in enables students to receive almost-instant formative feedback at lower-order writing aspects like grammar, spelling, punctuation, and references, based on criteria set by teachers. Students can iterate on their assignments before they hand in a final version, incorporating the actionable, inline AI-generated feedback suggestions as much as they like.
To facilitate teacher-student feedback, Assignment Review and Skill Review let instructors give feedback on assignments and skills based on a set of criteria. The tools transform the traditional feedback process into a two-way dialogue by allowing students to respond to teachers’ feedback. This way, students can understand what criteria their work is assessed on and reflect on the given feedback better. Moreover, you can scale the assessment process by reusing your feedback comments.
FeedbackFruits Peer Review is the tool for peer feedback and peer learning, allowing teachers to create assignments for students to provide feedback on their peers’ deliverables, while at the same time reflecting on the received feedback to improve their own drafts. Furthermore, instructors can set up a self-assessment step during the peer review process in which students critically review their own contribution before assessing others’, based on the same criteria.
3. Gauging student needs through learner analytics
Pinpointing and attending to students’ diverse needs is no easy task, and becomes even more challenging in large-scale, online, hybrid, and/or asynchronous environments. Without the insight into their learners’ progress and challenges, instructors have no way of providing the guidance required for success. This is where learner analytics can offer a helping hand and empower educators to adopt an individualized, meaningful approach to supporting their students.
The FeedbackFruits tools offer in-depth analytics that allow instructors to track students’ progress, identify pressure points, and timely intervene. Furthermore, the Group Member Evaluation’s Participation Grading feature enables the students to rate their group members’ contribution to the work, making it possible to detect outliers and gain a deeper insight into group dynamics. Equipped with this information, instructors can adjust their teaching plan accordingly, and provide a more effective guidance that is customized to their students’ fast-changing needs.
4. Implementing flexible grouping and collaboration methods
Flexible grouping when issuing team activities is also essential in personalized learning. There is no better way to address learning barriers and diversity than letting students gather in collaborative activities. Working with peers allows learners to compliment each other in many ways: knowledge, skills, learning preferences, and perspectives. Furthermore, collaborative working environments aid in the cultivation of teamwork, leadership, and critical thinking, which are the desired skills in real life.
To optimize the positive impact of group work, a variety of grouping methods should be utilized to meet the different needs of students. Instructors can create peer pairs, small or large groups, groups of students with similar (homogenous) or different (heterogeneous) learning needs . Whichever arrangement is used, it should always consider students’ profiles established via the needs analysis, and remain dynamic throughout the course.
5. Diversifying student-content interaction
“One of our goals as educators is not specifically just to deliver content, but to help create environments where students can learn.” - emphasized by Andrew Feinstein of Fort Hays State University when sharing about personalized learning.
Not every student understands and accumulates the subject matter in the same way, in the same place, or at the same time. That’s why it is vital to vary methods and formats through which the knowledge is consumed, processed, and applied  . Instead of traditional written documents, instructors can use recordings, videos, or presentations as vessels to deliver the intended content. Replacing traditional lectures with group activities, annotations, discussion boards, and such critically motivates students of different learning styles. As for the assessment practices, students should be encouraged to demonstrate their knowledge and skills under different forms, such as presentation, journals, poster creation, or podcast making.
Furthermore, to ensure continuous, inclusive engagement, learning cannot end with a synchronous class. Educators should build on the momentum of in-class interactions and offer asynchronous ways of engaging with the source material that can later be used to adapt and clarify key learning steps.
There are many easy-to-use tools that enable instructors to generate multimedia content, activities and assessment practices that suit the varied needs of learners, and FeedbackFruits tools are among these. Interactive Study Material and Comprehension optimize the annotation method by letting teachers upload documents, audios, or videos, then add in-line questions or discussion points to stimulate meaningful interactions, engagement, and understanding. Discussion on Work helps create an online symposium, in which students can upload their final assignments and engage in discussion about their own work and that of others.
Building lasting engagement at Cornell University and Eastern Nazarene College
A personalized, agile, and diversified approach to learning design is essential to maintain lasting student engagement, especially within the online/hybrid classrooms. Pedagogy-driven technology can help institutions create this “ideal” personalized learning environment, by optimizing different teaching practices from collaborative, team-based learning, to peer/group assessment. In our InstructureCon session, we will discuss how Cornell University and Eastern Nazarene College cultivated lasting engagement in Canvas with the help of FeedbackFruits.
Are you curious about the best practices for inclusive, continuous engagement?
Join us on July 14 at 10:50 AM (MT) for our InstructureCon session with Ksenia Ionova from Cornell University and Bill McCoy and Melinda Smith from Eastern Nazarene College to dive into two stories of successful digital transformation for a deeper learning experience.
 ACSD (2010) “What Research Says About… Differentiated Learning”.
 Alli, N., Rajan, R. & Ratliff, G. (2016) “How Personalized Learning Unlocks Student Success” EDUCAUSE.
 Grant, P., & Basye, D. (2014). Personalized learning: A guide for engaging students with technology. International Society for Technology in Education.
 Grinager, H. (2006) “How Education Technology Leads to Improved Student Achievement”. Education Issues.
 Herrington, A., & Herrington, J. (2005). Authentic learning environments in higher education. IGI Global.
 The IRIS Center. (2010). “Differentiated instruction: Maximizing the learning of all students.” Retrieved from https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/di/
 Pappas, C. (2016). “4 Tips to Use The Minimalist Theory in eLearning.” eLearning Industry. "
 Shak, N. (2018, August 6). “Personalized learning and differentiated instruction: A breakdown.” Edulastic Blog.
 Tucker, G. C. (n.d.). “What is differentiated instruction? Understood - For learning and thinking differences.”