Every school should have personalized learning

New study : How can digital media personalize learning?

In Beijing, schoolchildren can connect to one of thousands of learning coaches via mobile phone at any time, in the USA, reading software offers a selection of 2,000 books to suit the interests of the learners, and in Singapore, students look at explanations Videos before practicing with the teachers in class. These are only three of a total of 30 digital learning tools worldwide that were examined more closely in the new study "Personalized learning with digital media" by an international research team commissioned by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

The study published on Tuesday is about the question of whether the use of digital learning programs can actually tailor lessons to the individual students. The team of educational researchers from the Humboldt University of Berlin, the British Open University Milton Keynes and the University College London evaluated various studies in which internationally proven learning tools were evaluated. However, the experts warn against rashly transferring the programs to the German education system.

Rather, its use in Germany would entail a number of challenges: starting with the technical infrastructure and data protection to the lack of educational concepts. "Personalized learning with digital media is not a miracle cure, but a promising approach that should be pursued," says study author Heike Schaumburg, educational scientist at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

The scientists have developed guidelines for teachers that should be observed before they introduce certain software in their class. At the same time, the research team has formulated policy recommendations.

Beijing: A Dating App for Teachers and Learners

One of the promising approaches examined is, for example, the Chinese innovation “Smart Learning Partner”. The program provides learning videos that cover all subjects and all grades. While the students use the online videos, the program saves their data and adapts the learning content and tasks to the respective progress. But that's not all. The program connects students with thousands of tutors via an app. The learners can contact the coaches at any time of the day or night if they need help or have specific questions. They then receive a 20-minute one-to-one lesson via video conference.

"In principle, the program works in a similar way to a dating app," explained Heike Schaumburg. The effort is of course enormous. The tutors receive a fee, the app is free of charge for the learners. The program is fully financed by the Beijing Tongzhou District, where it is also used. There are still no empirical findings on the effects, says Schaumburg, but it is an interesting example of a learning tool with which the students can take their learning process completely into their own hands.

At the same time, the study points to the risks associated with personalized learning tools with digital media like this one. For example, when using it, huge amounts of data would be collected from the learners, thereby compromising privacy. In addition, algorithms with which the intelligent learning management systems work could also reproduce existing stereotypes.

Empirical findings on the effectiveness of the programs are still rare

Overall, the researchers found little scientific evidence for the effectiveness of the learning tools. One approach that has actually shown positive effects is the "Accelerated Reader" program, which is used to assist reading in the USA. The software contains information about 2,000 books so students can choose the reading material that suits their preferences and abilities. After reading, you can check your reading comprehension and receive individual feedback. 350 schoolchildren between the ages of six and ten took part in the evaluation. Result: The group whose reading lessons were supplemented by “Accelerated Reader” performed better in a test after 24 weeks than the comparison group, which received conventional lessons. According to the study, the approach is worth exploring further.

According to the experts, one of the biggest hurdles in using such tried and tested programs is the inadequate technical infrastructure in Germany. In principle, it is beneficial for the personalization of learning if all learners can also use their own device in the classroom. The schools are a long way from that. In 2013, on average, more than eleven pupils shared a computer in lower secondary school. In countries like Norway, Australia or Denmark, one device would be available for three to four learners.

Regardless of the technical requirements, there is also a lack of extensive experience with the concepts for individualized learning. The authors of the study warn against a one-sided concentration on the promotion of technical solutions. Instead, an educational strategy for the pedagogical use of technology in the classroom is necessary.