How To Hyper-Personalize Education

We've all experienced it. You are just about to pay for your online purchases when, right beside the shopping cart, up pops the enticing images of other products that you didn't even know you wanted. "Customers who bought this item also bought..." And your credit card balance swells.

Websites, from shopping to social networking, have abandoned the one-size-fits all approach to shaping the user experience in favor of hyper-personalization. My homepages on Facebook and Netflix only vaguely resemble yours because our interests and persuasions differ. How do they know so much about us? We tell them when we rate movies, "like" posts, create detailed profiles, and interact with observant systems that record every click and keystroke.

Hyper-personalization engages us more deeply in our online experiences. If I rate more movies, then I'll have more recommendations to choose from, we reason. The more data we feed the personalization engines, the more accurate they are in predicting what we want to see and do on our next visit.

We bring a complex mix of motivations, needs, and interests to experiences like shopping and reading news online, and learning is no different. Add into the mix other personal attributes, such as prior knowledge about the subject matter, time available for studying, and preferred media formats.

Given the sophistication of hyper-personalization in so many other domains of our online lives -- and increasing consumer expectation that our digital worlds be customized -- it makes sense that education should harness this technology to differentiate and enhance learning.

To explore what hyper-personalization might be like for learners in an online course environment, it's instructive to consider a natural learning expedition on the web. Recently, my interest in utilitarianism was piqued by a conversation with a philosopher friend, so I took to the web. A quick browser search led, as it usually does, to a Wikipedia page on the subject, where I discovered that I knew a lot less than I'd thought.

Utilitarianism is the notion that moral worth of an action is determined by how it maximizes happiness of all those affected. I learned that utilitarianism is a kind of consequentialism. Good grief, I'd better read that, too.

Returning to my browser search, I discovered the text of John Stuart Mill's entire 1863 book, Utilitarianism, on Google Books. I could also have watched one of the many videos on YouTube about the subject, downloaded a podcast to my iPhone, perused the discussion forums of Mill enthusiasts, or "followed" a blog about moral theories. And to ensure that I stay up-to-date on developments in thinking about utilitarianism, I can create search terms on a news site, subscribe to an RSS feed, or join a Facebook group dedicated to the subject, all of which will alert me when anything new is published to the web.

Now, imagine I'm taking a philosophy course online as part of my degree program. I'm just beginning a unit on epistemology, the study of knowledge and how we justify our beliefs. In my classroom, I've built a detailed profile, and I've been a student for 6 months, so the systems knows a good bit about me: I enjoy working in a learning team, I prefer podcast to video content, my GPA is .5 away from my goal, and, well, I struggle to turn things in on time.
At the end of the unit, I am to write a reflection David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. My instructor has offered an introduction to epistemology, and now it's time to dive into the material. My hyper-personalized online classroom directs me to the text, which I read in sections, rating each one to mark my level understanding.

With my cursor, I hover over unfamiliar words to reveal their meaning and make electronic notes in the margin. The system remembers which words stumped me and refreshes my memory in game-style tutorial before I write my reflection paper. On the discussion boards, I engage with my classmates and instructor on the ideas, and I subscribe to RSS feeds on threads that are most interesting to me.

After each section, I take a quiz that determines my level of understanding of the material and then produces a personalized study session for me and, if I choose, includes classmates that would benefit from studying targeted concepts collectively. The system also recommends supplemental materials, such as a video or podcast about epistemology. I choose the podcast and listen on the subway.

Back in the classroom, vocabulary flashcards display in a side bar as I'm studying so that I am constantly reminded of the concepts that I'm learning. And, thank goodness, the system sends me an email reminder two days before my paper is due.

I still may visit Wikipedia and YouTube to see what they have to say about epistemology, but in my classroom, I've built my knowledge of the subject in ways that maximize meaning for me. Hume would be proud.

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