With i-Learn, we focus on digital personalised learning, a form of learning that takes place in a digital learning environment. The learning environment adapts itself to the level of the student so that the learning activities are tailored to the child.
Of course, we don’t just build an online portal like this. We want to develop a sustainable product that can be used in a wide range of situations. That is why it is important that we take into account the current needs within the educational field. What do teachers think about digital personalised learning? And are they asking for an online portal that can offer customised education? Which aspects should then definitely not be missing from the portal? And what are possible pitfalls that could cause the portal to miss its target completely?
With these questions in mind, we visited ten Flemish schools in the autumn of 2019, for a first exploration of the educational field. In February 2020, we also launched a large-scale survey among all Flemish primary and secondary schools. In this way, we obtained an even more complete picture of the wishes and needs in Flemish education. We will have to wait for the results of the large-scale survey, but we would like to lift a corner of the veil by presenting the most important lessons we learned from our focus discussions in the autumn.
Digital personalised learning can of course only be deployed when certain preconditions are met. The school needs to have sufficient hardware, and that seems to be the biggest threshold at the moment. Most schools do not have a sufficient number of devices to structurally incorporate digital educational applications into the lessons. As a result, laptops and tablets (because they are more mobile than desktops) are often used for research. Of course, the cost aspect plays a major role here and the right technical support is also important.
Personalisation and adaptivity as major strengths
The teachers surveyed all agree that it must be possible to personalise the learning pathway for each student. In terms of software, there is a strong demand for authoring tools (i.e. software that helps you adapt the learning content to your specific needs), online learning environments and learning management tools (i.e. software to track a student’s progress and offer learning content).
Teachers primarily want to be able to adapt the learning content themselves to current needs and wishes. In addition, they consider online learning environments to be crucial as these environments contain qualitative content in different levels of difficulty, which allows for the personalisation of the learning path for each learner. Finally, the participants also indicated that learning management tools may not be lacking because they offer the possibility of offering learning content and keeping records in one convenient place. This can only benefit efficiency.
Educational applications that are adaptive also have an edge. The interviewees indicated, for example, that they must be able to determine the starting level of the student within a tool, but that it is desirable for the educational application to also vary the exercises on the basis of the student’s level.
Unfortunately, the high financial costs are once again a barrier to the optimal use of educational technology. Moreover, during our interviews we often heard that software providers currently give too little authorship to teachers and schools. In practice, the existing tools are still too little dynamic, so that teachers cannot optimally personalise the tools for their own school and vision. On top of this, the integration of other applications is often not possible. This monopoly, in which schools are tied to a single provider of educational products, is experienced as a major stumbling block.
When do teachers want to implement digital personalised learning?
Teachers consider digital personalised learning to be broadly applicable. They see benefit in it, both subject-related and cross-curricular. Of course, a quality filter is essential: not all educational applications on the market are of equal quality. Moreover, in some subject areas (e.g. chemistry and physics) there is a shortage of useful subject-related applications.
Moreover, digital applications can be used before, during and after the lesson. First of all, thanks to learning analytics (i.e. the collection and analysis of data about pupils), teachers can create a personalised step-by-step plan before the lesson that is adapted to the level of the pupil. Secondly, digital tools are also multi-purpose during the lesson: instruction of new learning content, rehearsal of material, communication with pupils, feedback, etc. Finally, after the lesson, the advantage of digital applications as a means of communication comes to the fore. Pupils can then make exercises at home and ask the teacher questions. An important addition, however, is that it cannot be the intention to send extra work to pupils at home.
Coaching and support for teachers
Of course, we have not only focused on the content and possibilities of digital applications and learning environments. A tool may be very good, but if the teacher cannot work with it efficiently, the educational application will miss its target completely.
Our focus discussions show that there is a great demand for supporting teachers in implementing a digital learning environment. This support can take various forms: helpdesk, workshops, instructional videos, online manuals, FAQ, etc. With the help of the necessary support, teachers see the implementation of digital personalised learning coming to fruition.
With i-Learn we seem to be on the right track. We are busy developing the prototype of our online, adaptive portal and the accompanying professionalisation. The results of both surveys – together with the input of our pilot schools – will be included in further developments. This way, we can work together with the educational field on the learning environment of the future.
Would you like more details about the content of the focus interviews? You can read the full report here (in Dutch).