What Does ‘Personalization at Scale’ Mean?

Timothy McKay,  Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Director of the LSA Honors Program & DIG Principle Investigator


Here is an early answer extracted verbatim from the founding proposal for the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, written in August 2014. It provides a good starting point for a longer discussion of personalization at scale. As our thinking on this topic evolves, we will follow up with additional posts.

When students feel their education is personalized – when it’s right for them, aware of and sensitive to their background, interests, and goals – they respond with engagement; engagement which emerges naturally as a result of relevance, attention, and a sense of belonging.

For nearly two centuries, University of Michigan faculty and staff have worked tirelessly to provide excellent, personal, appropriate educational experiences to all of our students. But today’s student body is larger and more diverse than ever. Too often our students experience the university as faceless, inattentive, and unaware. Communications they receive are plainly generic (“Welcome to Michigan!”). Faculty fail to relate the material they teach to student interests. Too many students find themselves alone in classes without a peer who understands their life experience, and too often no one notices when a student is in trouble and has stopped attending all their classes. In the 1980’s, it was difficult to do better. How could we keep track of and respond to the rich individuality of all these students? How could an overbooked advisor notice every student’s change of course? How could a faculty member know that one of their 250 students was skipping all of their classes?  Information technology, in this as in so many areas, opens new possibilities. It allows us to gather, with little additional effort, extensive data about every student’s background and experience, current state, and future goals.

This information can be made available in creative, appropriate ways to people: informing faculty, advisors, and the students themselves, allowing them to base their actions on rich data, rather than anecdote. By providing access to evidence useful for decision-making, it can allow each person to learn from the experience of all, rather than just the few who they happen to talk to. Information technology allows us to use this information directly as well, but still in precise, and personal ways. It allows us to coach each student toward success in ways which are aware of their current state, sensitive to their goals and identity, and delivered in the voices of faculty, staff, and prior students. Eventually, it will allow us to adapt the work we ask students to do, recognizing individual strengths and weaknesses and focusing effort on areas in need of growth.

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Over the last three years, the University of Michigan has taken important steps toward using data to personalize education and more deeply engage students. Using extensive external support and targeted internal funding, faculty-led research teams have built and tested technologies which present students, faculty, and advisors with rich data to inform their choices, applications which provide effective electronic coaching to thousands of students, and systems which allow students greater flexibility in the work they do and help them to understand the consequences of their choices. These ideas are not vapor-ware; they have all been realized in significant trials.

It is time to find a way to make these experimental innovations everyday practice. To claim and retain leadership in the use of digital engagement technology on our campus, we have to develop efficient, attractive ways to take the promising sprouts which emerge from research groups and grow them to maturity. This proposal seeks support to pilot a Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG). This three year DIG pilot will grow a series of existing digital engagement innovations from the research labs they have outgrown, carry them across the innovation ‘valley of death’, and deliver them to ITS as infrastructural tools which can be used campus-wide. In doing this, we will achieve both the immediate goal of making existing research tools much more widely available and the longer term goal of demonstrating the importance of this greenhouse approach to the development of 21st century digital engagement tools.

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