Thinking, talking and writing computer programmes about personalisation at City College Norwich



This report is based on research activities carried out at City College Norwich between December 2007 and March 2008. The main aim of the research was to investigate existing models of personalised learning and learner advocacy at City College and suggest possible ways in which these could be supported through technology. The research was part of a larger cross-institutional collaborative research project sponsored by CEL investigating the dimensions of leadership in implementing personalisation.
Both personalised learning and learner advocacy (also referred to as learner voice) proved to be difficult concepts to define. Similar difficulties were experienced by City College staff both those participating in personalisation pilot projects and those simply involved in their day-to-day duties. As a consequence, the key finding of this project was the preeminent importance of institutional leadership to the success of large innovations. In particular, there is a clear need for setting understandable goals and laying out ways and strategies of achieving those goals. This is necessary to clear out misunderstandings both on the part of students and staff and to alleviate the concerns of staff over increased workload.
Research into technological support for learner voice and work-based learning uncovered a multitude of tools with various levels of suitability. It became clear that attention needs to be paid to real patterns of usage and skill levels of management, staff and students. The world of technology is currently in flux with the introduction of the social element under the heading of Web 2.0. As a result, investing into old tools (existing VLEs) seems to be an inefficient use of resources while new technologies and practices for their use have not yet been established. Many tools and services designed for the personalisation of the online experience and the expression of the individual’s voice in the context of the larger group only succeed partially when actual user behaviour is observed. For instance, ‘Groups’ on social networks such as ‘Facebook’ and ‘Bebo’ usually serve more as a badge of membership or identification with a cause rather than effective platforms for the representation of an individual’s voice. On the other hand, VLEs and eILPs (electronic Individualised Learning Plans) are often developed behind closed doors using an outdated non-agile development model not responsive to users’ needs and going in the face of their expectations. As a result, it may be incumbent upon educational institutions to join in the development of the appropriate technologies through Open Source initiatives and contribute jointly into the pool of best practices keeping interoperability and agility of development at the centre of attention. As a beneficial side-effect, Open Source project development and management practices may serve as a useful model of managing other types of institutional innovation.
Literature review on personalisation and learner self-advocacy has revealed that not all conceptualisations of personalised learning and the representation of the learner in the process are straightforward. There is a difference in emphasis between personalisation efforts in the US and in UK. Whereas current UK efforts largely derive from government led initiatives, focus on the pedagogy and take centre-stage, US personalisation projects happen mainly on the margins and focus on eLearning systems as a point of departure. It is important to differentiate personalised learning from e-learning or even distance learning, which is not always the case. Although mentions of personalisation can be traced to the 1970s, recent UK projects have their antecedents in government-driven initiatives that received prominence only in the 21st century (Milliband, 2004; Johnson 2004; Keefe, 2007; Campbell et al. 2007; Jones and Duckett, 2006). Consequently, there is a dearth of peer-reviewed research available for consultation. The activities under investigation here are, in effect, creating new realities that can only be exposed to independent (non-action) research scrutiny later.