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Public-University Group Expands ‘Personalized Learning’ Efforts

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities is expanding its support of “personalized learning” with the help of a new $4.6-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Personalized learning” means different things to different people. It’s a buzzword, and it can be difficult to get past the hype. Depending on whom you ask, it can mean such things as data analytics, video games, or artificial-intelligence research.

For the university association, it has to do with using technology to focus on students’ individual needs. “Personalized learning is all about putting that learner in the center of the process,” said Meaghan Duff, executive director of APLU’s Personalized Learning Consortium, which will manage the initiative.

The group will help universities scale their use of adaptive courseware — that is, technology that analyzes students’ data in order to help them learn. As students work through their classes, adaptive courseware gathers data on student performance and then shares that information with students and their instructors. Instructors can consult the data when they’re deciding how to apportion classroom time.

“We don’t want institutions to go back to the basics and experiment,” Ms. Duff said. “We actually know a lot about how to implement these technologies well at scale.”

In May the group will select up to six institutions to receive funding. At the selected universities, the money will pay for a campus-based program manager, faculty development, and general-education curriculum reform. APLU will also work with adaptive-courseware suppliers.

Adaptive courseware can be used in distance education, but the university association is focused on blended learning. Faculty members will learn to use new online tools but will continue working with students in a traditional classroom setting. The group wants universities to focus their efforts in lower-level, high-enrollment courses, or in courses with high failure and withdrawal rates.

Some of those courses can be barriers to student success, Ms. Duff said. “We believe — and the Gates Foundation believes — these technologies and approaches to learning can have the greatest effect in reducing those barriers.”

The university association will also use the grant to build an online course for university leaders. The course will focus on how universities can change student advising to increase student success and improve completion rates.

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