edtech,  higher ed

Maybe more isn’t better


In education (and ed tech especially) we have a number of assumptions that seem obvious and they drive a lot of our thinking, particularly around change and implementation of technology. They usually get positive responses when you ask people about them, and often they are valid, but I’ve had a few examples recently that highlight the value in questioning some of those unspoken beliefs.

The first assumption is “Personalised learning is better” – I mean, that seems obvious right? It’s better to have something tailored to your needs rather than one size fits all? That’s probably true, but this report found that students in personalized schools feel less positive about their experience. I don’t know enough about how the programmes are implemented to say whether this is a problem with personalisation per se or just poor implementation. But we should pause anyway – personalisation erodes the sense of a cohort and shared experience with others, which is a significant part of the educational process. It may also place stress on the student to feel like they need to direct their own learning as well as undertake it, maybe doing just one of those is enough.

The second assumption is that “People want more flexibility”. Again, this seems obvious, and indeed may well be correct in many instances. But at the EADTU conferenceĀ I was struck by a presentation from Rieny van den Munckhof, from the OU Netherlands. They found that, echoing some of the sentiment around personalisation above, that their previously highly flexible model (start any time, take exam when you want), was in fact, too flexible. It worked for highly independent learners, but they’ve switched to a more structured approach. This has improved retention and allowed for more interactive pedagogy.

My last one is that “more feedback is always better”. I don’t really have any evidence on this, but here’s an anecdote instead. I recently had real time energy meters installed, which came with a handy display to show my current gas and electricity usage. This became a source of some anxiety for me, and in the end I unplugged it and hid it in a drawer. In some sense it did it’s job, making me more conscious of energy usage. For the planet, that’s good, but putting that aside as it less relevant for our student analogy, I’m not sure it was worth the cost. I may save a few pounds on each bill, but not drastically, and the stress of seeing that monitor continually telling me not to cook a Sunday dinner removed enjoyment from it. Might the same be true for students with learning analytics? Receiving continual feedback on page dwells, scores, contributions, creates a stress to monitor the monitoring rather than engage in the activity. The research on immediate and delayed feedback is mixed, so maybe for some students a general “you’re doing ok” is sufficient.

In all three of these cases(personalisation, flexibility, feedback), I’m sure you can find examples where they have improved satisfaction, performance, retention, etc. But we shouldn’t let these unspoken assumptions pass unchallenged, because huge industries and major university strategies which will affect thousands of learners are based on them.


  • Robin DeRosa

    I also wonder on the flexibility piece what the difference is between flexible structures and lack of structure. The first has scaffolds, pathways, clarity… the second maybe none of those things… Just something I have been mulling around. I teach in a highly flexible degree program that serves many at-risk students, but it’s still very structured in most ways. Great post– food for thought!

    • mweller

      Hi Robin – yes, I think for all of these there are good ways to do them. Students do need flexibility often (for example to deal with events outside of study that can impact them), but the assumption that more is always better may not hold true.

  • Rosie Hare

    I am so unbelievably sceptical about learning analytics and I always say that, ultimately, everyone is going to be disappointed when it doesn’t ‘fix’ what we want it to fix.

    Very vague analogy to go along with the whole ‘personalisation’ thing: the latest series of Stranger Things was all about an evil ‘source’ that operated as a hive-mind and it was all connected. In the end, the humans were able to defeat it (or were they?!) by working together, so I definitely think you’re right in terms of learning often being about working together as a cohort. Neoliberal, individualistic culture has taught us to assume that following our individual desires is the default state.

  • Penny Bentley

    From anecdotal evidence gained over many years teaching in secondary classrooms I believe personalised learning (including individualised and differentiated learning), if not approached sensitively, can also exacerbate difference between students. Self-esteem/confidence may be eroded every time an alternative version of the ‘shared experience’ is given to a student, in the presence of their classmates. Thanks for making us challenge our assumptions Martin.

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