Personalised learning – constraints and what educators can do about them

We live in an era of “mass customisation”, where everything from cars to sandwiches can be tailored exactly to our preferences. And some have argued that similar customisation is happening in the world of education, bringing in a new era of personalised learning.

In her provocative book “DIY U”, American journalist Anya Kamenetz (2010) presents an extreme version of this view, arguing that the enterprising learner can create their own, bespoke learning experience without the crippling cost of formal university education. A number of forces are driving this, including the greater availability of information and easier communication, and other developments mostly in technology. Others have argued more moderately that learning is becoming much more personalised (see for example Wheeler, 2009, who argues that the Personal Learning Environment or PLE will eventually supplant the VLE.)

Is this vision of personalised learning correct? Are there any key constraints on it?

On the surface, the evidence is consistent that students are increasingly using a wide range of tools to tailor their learning to their own personal preferences and approach (see for example the summary by Conole, 2011). This continues a long-term trend. In pre-Gutenberg Europe, someone who wanted to learn would need to somehow gain access to the universities and church bodies who controlled the handful of instructors and manuscripts that were available.

The printing press opened up learning to a wider audience, but it remained largely in control of the elite. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the hero of Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure is a stonemason with his heart set on a life of study. He reads as much as he can and moves to Christminster (Oxford) to be physically closer to the learning there. However, his application to study is brusquely rejected by the Master of “Biblioll” College:

“SIR, — I have read your letter with interest; and, judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course. That, therefore, is what I advise you to do” (Hardy, 1895)

Nowadays, Hardy would need another way to make the story end tragically. If Jude was not able to attend physical university for some reason, he could study online, or just make use of free resources and join discussion groups interested in the classics. In that sense it is more possible than ever for learners to control and personalise their own learning.

Key constraints

However, a number of constraints on fully personalised learning can be identified. Firstly, for those enrolled in formal education, personalised learning will be constrained by the need to succeed in exams, which leads to a reluctance on the part of students and institutions to take risks. Despite their drawbacks, standardised exams will probably remain the most feasible method of assessing large numbers of students at the same time, so this constraint is likely to be in place for some time yet.

This is presumably one of the reasons why, as highlighted by one recent British study (Furlong & Davies, 2012), ownership of learning is much greater when it happens outside a formal educational setting:

“What is different at home though is that the young people themselves are in charge of their own strategies for learning; they can therefore draw on a wider range of different resources—digital, social and in terms of time—than is often possible at school or college.”

A second key constraint on personalised learning is analysed in the same study – possessing the right skills. The authors observed four different types of skills the students needed if they were to take control of learning in this way – technical skills (across different technologies), development of judgement (evaluating information), networking skills and collaborative skills. Interestingly, the authors make links between the last point and online gaming, a link that has been made before  (McGonigal, 2011). These skills need to be in place for learners to take ownership of their learning, but the encouraging aspect of the report is that the schoolchildren studied were, to some extent, demonstrating them.

A third and final constraint on complete ownership of learning is that learners will often need support in managing their learning. This is often provided by a learning institution through a VLE. Sclater (2008) has set out the ways in which VLEs can be particularly helpful to students:

  • Publicly available systems are often not interoperable
  • They can group learners together in appropriate groups to help communication
  • They protect students against material that is unsuitable, pornographic, defamatory, illegal etc.
  • They can ensure accessibility to as wide a group of students as possible
  • “Free” systems require support, which is often costly
  • It can be confusing to use multiple systems with varying interfaces

These are genuine benefits of standardised, VLE-based learning to offset against the disadvantages.


Most educators would accept that learners personalising their learning is a good thing, leading to greater ownership and more engagement. This would imply that educators have a key task of reducing or removing the constraints on this. Of the three constraints identified here (assessment, skills, support), the easiest one to help with is surely skills. So schools, universities and educational bodies need to help students acquire the skills they need – technical, judgement, networking and collaboration. Many already aspire to teach these skills, but it is unclear whether they are actually doing so.

To deal with technical skills first, a recent Canadian study (Vaughan et al, 2011) focused on student use of technology outside the classroom. In line with other studies noted, it confirmed the use of wide range of tools for collaboration and research, which students found extremely valuable. However, the authors also sounded a note of caution about the skills of students, and suggest that the university in this study, at any rate, is not delivering the technical skills students feel they need. This finding is worth quoting at length:

 “The assumption of many instructors in higher education is that Web 2.0 tools are already part of students’ everyday life, and, thus, no additional support is required (Lenhart et al., 2010). The comments provided by students in this study indicate that this is not always the case. They suggest that instructors provide “hands-on” tutorials and online resource to demonstrate how Web 2.0 technologies can be used to effectively and efficiently complete group work assignments. In addition, they recommend that post-secondary institutions provide “drop-in” centers where students can go for one-to-one help and assistance with technology tools.”

This is another consistent theme in the research (e.g. Kennedy et al, 2008) – because someone belongs to a certain generation, we cannot assume that they have certain technical skills. This puts a real responsibility on educational bodies to diagnose these skill gaps and seek to bridge them as far as possible, which in turn of course implies addressing skills gaps among educators as a matter of urgency.

With regard to the skill of how to evaluate information, this has of course usually formed part of what education, or even growing up, is about. In a sense, the development of the internet has just made the need for this more obvious. The science fiction writer Douglas Adams (1999) made this point with his customary clarity:

“Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do…What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.”

Finally, students need to acquire networking and collaboration skills. There may be some issues in achieving this in an educational system that tends to value individual achievement rather than group. It may even be that students are ahead of their instructors here. One recent study (Gross, 2011) even sees current increases in cheating and plagiarism as resulting from a profound shift in values, including an emphasis on communal rather than individual achievement. Gross suggests that we need to adapt to these new realities, not suppress them, which would be impossible in any case. How we adapt is another topic altogether, but my suspicion is that an occasional “group project” will not be sufficient, and more emphasis needs to be placed on teaching the skills needed to work effectively in groups.

Removing these obstacles to effective learning may be the most important thing we as educators can do.



Adams, D. (1999), ‘How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet’ Sunday Times, 29 August; [also online] (accessed 17 August 2012)

Conole, G. (2011) ‘Stepping over the edge: the implications of new technologies for education’ in Lee, M.J.W. and McLoughlin, C. (eds) Web 2.0-based E-learning: Applying Social Informatics for Tertiary Teaching, Hershey, PA, IGI Global

Furlong J. & Davies C. (2012) ‘Young people, new technologies and learning at home: taking context seriously’ Oxford Review of Education, vol. 38, iss. 1, pp.45-62

Gross, E. (2011), ‘Clashing Values: Contemporary views about cheating and plagiarism compared to traditional belief and practices’ Education, vol. 132 iss. 2, pp.435-440

Hardy, T. (1895), Jude the Obscure, London, Osgood, McIlvaine & Co

Kamenetz, A. (2010), DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, White River Junction, Chelsea Green

Kennedy, G.E., Judd, T.S, Churchward, A. and Gray, K. (2008) ‘First-year students’ experiences with technology: are they really digital natives?’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, vol.24, no.1, pp.108–22

Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith. A. & Zickuhr, K. (2010), ‘Social media & mobile Internet use among teens and young adults’; [online] (accessed 17 August 2012)

McGonigal, J. (2011), Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, London, Jonathan Cape

Sclater, N. (2008) ‘Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments, and the Future of Learning Management Systems’, Educause Center for Applied Research, Research Bulletin, vol. 2008, no.13; [also online], (accessed 17 August 2012)

Vaughan, N., Nickle, T., Silovs, J., Zimmer, J. (2011) ‘Moving To Their Own Beat: Exploring How Students Use Web 2.0 Technologies To Support Group Work Outside Of Class Time’, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, vol. 10, no. 3, pp.113-127; [also online], (accessed 17 August 2012)

Wheeler, S. (2009) ‘Two fingered salute’, blog entry posted 10 August 2009. Available from (accessed 17 August 2012)



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s