Personalisation: Who do you think you are?

Geoff Browell, Head of Archives Services

I attended a two day conference at the University of Brescia
in northern Italy in late April: the 13th International Innovations
in Education Colloquium. This was an opportunity for delegates to learn  about the opportunities afforded by
‘personalisation’ – the collection or delivery of information tailored to the
needs of individuals. The focus of the talks at this conference was
personalisation in the fields of healthcare and higher education, with the dual
objectives of improving patient care and making the student experience richer,
more creative and rewarding. Some fifty delegates were brought together from
these sectors drawn from a dozen countries as far afield as the UK, Australia
and Thailand.  This was an eclectic community
that included leading dentists, maxillo-facial cancer surgeons, and an expert
on conflict resolution, a specialist in 3D printing and an expert on student
interactions with online resources.

The hosts – as always – were the Brescia Medical and Dental
School, and we were grateful throughout for the care and attention provided by
many of the delightful student volunteers, including collecting delegates from
airports up to 60 miles distant and even preparing a magnificent homemade pasta

The colloquium began with an icebreaker session at which
delegates had were asked to draw and reinterpret examples of Australian flora –
in my case a pine cone (very badly). The session had a deeper purpose: the art
facilitator, Jen Wright, is currently completing a PhD on the role of fine art
in improving virtual learning systems for cancer surgeons – and our experience
provided some valuable feedback on how art can help the practice of surgery.

The keynote was provided by Eeva Leinonen, formerly of
King’s College London, and now Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of
Wollongong, Sydney. The university focuses on technology enhanced learning and
has recently developed a number of popular MOOCS and Open Educational Resources.
One of their key objectives is the creation of personalised learning support
for students – and this requires the collection of more detailed and meaningful
analytics to improve strategy, university management and explore the
motivations of students in a holistic way. Recent work has included a
comprehensive student survey on the ethical limitations of data collection (how
far are students willing to share data), and the potential of data collection
to improve teaching (for example almost real time data on attendance at
lectures), identify reasons for drop-out and thus improve retention of
students. The objective is the creation for a student of a truly personalised plan
analogous to a personalised medical treatment plan in a clinical setting. This
will help demonstrate to a student that they are valued, that their unique
contribution to the university is being recognised, and that interventions to
improve their learning experience can be acted on promptly.  

The second keynote, from Dieter Schonwetter of the University
of Manitoba, Canada, in honour of the late Bruce Elson, explored the role of
legacy and immortalisation post mortem as a type of personalisation, not least
in the digital sphere, but also in students’ research, writing and friendships.
A student’s connections, relationships and extra-curricular experiences are as
valuable as their formal learning in contributing to a lasting legacy.
Professor Schonwetter’s talk was supplemented by Professor Emeritus Margaret
Cox in a moving tribute to Bruce Elton and his work in the field of dental
haptics. Margaret drew attention to the hapTEL project at King’s – designed to
improve the teaching of dental students (

A presentation by Dr Eva Dobozy of Curtin University,
Western Australia, explored the phenomenon of online ‘lurking’ by students. I
was unfamiliar with the term, which refers to a type of online student
behaviour in which students fail to engage in online or blended learning but instead
are passive ‘watchers’ who refuse to participate in the opportunities which new
learning technologies afford and to take part in online discussions – the
equivalent of those classroom students that never contribute to classes but sit
passively from the back. We were shown the Learning Activity Management System
(LAMS) developed by Macquarie University to allow educators to monitor such
behaviour in online learning environments.  

The afternoon symposium comprised a packed series of talks
and presentations showcasing several new technologies. Professor Kenneth Eaton,
unveiled the SHIELD project – responding to an EU Horizon 2020 call aimed at
personalising health and care. The project, should it be funded, will seek to
support the development of digital devices to monitor the health of the elderly
at home, train healthcare workers and support carers, saving money – and the
dignity – of the old.

The North and South Culture Cafe Project, managed by the
universities of Hull and Southampton, was a series of talks aimed at
challenging stereotypes of the north and south of England, which often came
into being in the literature of the nineteenth century:

An important talk from Marika Guggisberg of Curtin
University, Western Australia, explored the impact to mental health of sexual
violence, concluding that it is under-reported and often goes unrecognised.
Marika proposed the development of new methods of intervention and prevention.

The next talk introduced GRAPHIC – a serious online game
used by dental students as part of their practical education. It drew attention
to the importance of such games in professional training. GRAPHIC-1 and its
follow-up, GRAPHIC-2, have been used by students at King’s College and in
Thailand on the suitability of oral health programmes in simulated situations.
The project has concluded that serious games have a role to play in
professional training to augment, but not replace, face to face teaching.

The next presentation concerned the delivery of
personalisation at scale – for large numbers of students – delivered by David
Gibson, Director of Learning Engagement at Curtin University in Western
Australia. He explained how algorithms have been developed which can recommend
learning materials or tasks based on data generated by other learners, or which
analyse large quantities of information relating to learner demographics and
personalise the learner experience based on these data. David proposed a mixed
approach using semi-automated personalised learning using machine learning
algorithms but which are adapted and shaped by the real experience of learners
and teachers.

The final workshop was delivered by John Burgess, a
consultant working in the construction industry and a professional adjudicator,
who provided invaluable advice on methods and means of personal development to
encourage innovation and risk-taking – encouragement of a sort of personalised

Overall, this was a
fascinating conference, which mixed together practitioners from many different
environments to think more deeply about providing more nuanced and intelligent
teaching and care for university students and patients alike.

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