3 Tips to Personalize Online Learning

Designing and teaching an online course for students of any age is an exciting endeavor. While you may not meet the students in person, there are three fairly simple steps you can take to quickly begin to learn about the nuances of each student, allowing you to craft a personalized learning experience.

Tip 1: Create Community Early

Getting to know your online students begins before the class starts. About a week before the semester begins, send a welcome message to your students. Briefly orient them to the class and include a link to a survey that aims to dig deeper into their reasons for taking the course, even if it’s a required course. To help you begin to build your relationship with each student, you might ask:  

  • Where are you on your educational journey?
  • What are two ways this course will help you reach your academic, professional, or personal goals?
  • Why have you opted to take this course in an online format?How will this course support you in your current or future workplace?

Your questions can also be specific to your course topic and degree field. When possible, include questions that can be answered as multiple choice/answer instead of short answer. Limit your survey to three short answer questions to avoid students giving up on it. Use the information you collect in your survey and to group students for future coursework.

In the first week of class, have the students create video introductions answering some of the pre-course survey questions. Creating your own video to model this process sets the tone and expectations. There will be some students who want to watch every video posted, which is fine, but many students won’t have time to watch them all. Use the information you collected from your pre-course survey to design groups of 3-4 students.  Have them watch just those videos and engage in a conversation with a small group of peers. To help facilitate these conversations, prepare guided questions to get the conversation started:

  • I noticed you mentioned … in your video. I had a similar experience when….
  • I like how you talked about … in your video.  How does that apply to ….?
  • When you planned to….. how did or will that impact ….?

Often our students feel concerned about putting their thoughts on display in a public space. These guided conversation starters can help normalize the experience and get the ball rolling.

Tip 2: Choose Your Own Adventure

Because we don’t know what skills our students will bring to the table, what experiences they will share to help us learn from new perspectives, or what goals they hope to reach as a result of taking the course, we need to offer flexibility in the learning path.  In our planning, we can prepare for a variety of experiences to exist within the same course. Yes, the course must address the same learning objectives for all students, but the way each student masters those objectives can look quite different. Designing opportunities for students to choose their own course adventure allows them to personalize the experience so they gain the most from it.

Creating a playlist provides options for learning experiences and demonstrating mastery of new skills. Playlists allow each student to take a different path through the course, all meeting at the same objectives in the end. You might consider reading more about it in this post from Education Elements.

Screen shot of playlist from an online course.
Image Courtesy of Jessica Ludders

This is an example of a playlist in a graduate class that serves learners from many different environments. This Google Document is 4 pages long. It’s organized in general categories that align with the needs of the students in the course. Students are asked to select resources from the categories that align with their specific needs in helping them reach their assignment and course goals.

Tip 3:  Personalized Feedback

Perhaps the most significant way we can personalize the course experience is to engage with students through feedback. Students need feedback before they proceed to the next step of an assignment or a course project to move in the correct direction, so timeliness is important.

Use what you know about the student from prior interactions and the pre-course survey to personalize your feedback. This private exchange centered on the ways a student chooses to showcase his/her knowledge and skill development allows you opportunities to guide the student to stronger understandings of the concepts, draw connections between prior learning and future learning, and create connections to real-world learning opportunities that would interest the student.  

In this image,  we can see how personalized feedback adds depth to the student’s learning experience. In this case, the journalism student was asked to look at a website and select a school newspaper to review. She was able to find the paper for her school, which allowed the teacher and the student to then carry on a conversation about that particular source and how it connected with the student and her growing knowledge.

Screen shot of feedback on a student assignment.
Image Courtesy of Jessica Ludders

The conversations extends beyond what appears in this screenshot.

Use tools you have available in your LMS or other course systems to provide timely, specific, detailed feedback to help students master the skills and move forward with confidence. The more engaged you become with the student, the more engaged the student will become with the course materials.

Screen shot of annotation tools in LMS to provide specific feedback for a student.
Image Courtesy of Jessica Ludders

Moving through your course intentionally allows you to connect with students, customize their experience, and guide them through their growth so no two students will have the same journey. Yes, personalizing the course experience for our students does require effort and sustained diligence, but the gains are worth it.

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