5 ideas for overcoming the challenges of delivering personalised, student-centred learning.

by Jodie Young, Shane Sutherland, Richard Dando


5 ideas for overcoming the challenges of delivering personalised, student-centred learning.

~ Student-centred learning ~

DECEMBER 5th 2017
Jodie Young
Shane Sutherland
Richard Dando


What do we mean by student-centred learning?

We recently published the findings of a review of teaching and learning strategies from 50 universities across the globe. 44% of the reviewed strategies were concerned with improving student-centred approaches. You may well discern from this snippet of data that 56% of the universities are happy enough with what they’re already doing. Perhaps. Although, our conversations with institutions around the globe suggest that there remains widespread frustration at the resilience of teacher-centred pedagogies.
Many of the ideas we’ve shared recently have highlighted an international shift in higher education towards developing what students can do, rather than just what they know. Sometimes this is organised through employability campaigns, or institutional attempts to signal the uniqueness of their particular graduates. For us, though, it’s just good pedagogy.

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The ultimate reward of student-centredness is learner autonomy and independence, which is why it needs to include much more formative assessment, including peer and self-review, leading to motivated and self-regulating learners.

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Student-centredness suggests a concern with what learners should know, do and appreciate as a result of thoughtfully designed learning experiences, which itself suggests reversing the way teaching is designed. If we know where we want learners to end up, we can work out how to get there - and how we (teachers and learners) will know they’ve arrived. This focus on learning design should not suggest an intention for learning to be ‘done to’ the students. Student-centredness is typically active, collaborative and experiential - as typified by AAC&Us High Impact Practices.
The ultimate reward of student-centredness is learner autonomy and independence, which is why it needs to include much more formative assessment, including peer and self-review, leading to motivated and self-regulating learners. And increasingly those key attributes are accelerated through learning experiences beyond the classroom, on internships, study abroad, community projects, student awards and many other co- and extra-curricular activities.
Yet, whilst student-centred learning is clearly the long-term goal of many universities, delivering on this ambition can present a number of challenges. Below we discuss 5 of the key challenges along with ideas on how to overcome them. You can also download a copy of our guide to kick-starting a student-centred learning strategy here ...

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Perceived challenge 1: Students view the learning technology made available to them as an organisation-owned space where content is king and learning experiences are transitory - it limits an institution's ability to facilitate learner autonomy and independence.

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The solution - a personal space for learning

The ability to strike the right balance between a personal space for learners and the institutional space for reviewing, supporting and assessing progress is entirely possible if you have the right tools to help students record learning whenever and wherever it happens, and for assessing progress and achievement when it matters.

Image shows the PebblePad Asset Store
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Above is an example of a student's Asset Store in PebblePad. It contains freeform personal assets such as portfolios, blogs and videos, interspersed with completed digital workbooks and placement records. Our very own Melissa Pirie Cross touched on finding the right balance between the personal and institutional space in her recent blog The fresh start mindset, the compost heap of digital knowledge, and other great discussions from AAEEBL 2017.

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Perceived challenge 2: 
A student-centred strategy that promotes learning through experience, presents real challenges for learning design and limits the ability to structure and guide learning.

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The solution - a guided space for learning

In our view, providing a personal learning space to help students explore, reflect on, and evidence their own learning is a must. However, this alone is not enough. The inevitable uniqueness of each student’s exploration will present challenges for assessment at scale. So how do universities maintain the authenticity and integrity of a personal space for learning whilst at the same time satisfying the institutional agenda? The answer lies in the same personal learning platform being coupled with tools to help structure and guide learning (no matter what context) along with seamless assessment capability.

Image shows the PebblePad Template Builder
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If you'd like to learn more about the practicalities of combining guided learning through the likes of digital workbooks with freeform portfolios, we would highly recommend Joy Robbin's recent blog post To build better assessment you need to look at it from a different perspective based on her experiences at the University of Bradford. 

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Perceived challenge 3:
Capturing, collating and showcasing skills developed through curricular and extra-curricular experience is an intrinsically difficult thing for a typical student.

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The solution - a creative space for learning

Earlier in this blog we talked about the increasing importance of students being able to fully articulate what they can do versus what they know. We believe every student should have the means to easily record and reflect on any and every experience. In PebblePad, this could be the completion of a customised template for supporting an internship, a video of a clinical practical uploaded via the app, or a business project blog post. But this is only half the story. Collating evidence of experience is only of real value if your student-centred technology toolkit can also support the aggregation of these records into beautiful portfolio form, whether this is in support of peer review, formal assessment or career application.

The image shows an example eportfolio
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Perceived challenge 4:
Personalised learning and private spaces for learning will limit collaborative opportunities, which are key to student-centred, experiential learning.

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The solution - a personal and collaborative space for learning

Our view of a student-centred world is one in which learners can maintain a secure and private digital space for their own learning but without it being closed to input from others. In PebblePad, learners can not only initiate and record their own learning experiences but they can also determine who else they want to bring into the process outside of formal assessment. To this end, we believe a student-centred technology armoury should support secure collaboration, sharing, peer review, conversation spaces and allow students to capture learning anywhere, on any device. Sheffield Hallam University and PebblePad's recent Learning Technologies award is an outstanding example of innovation in peer-reviewed, collaborative learning

The image shows peer review in a PebblePad workbook
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Perceived challenge 5: A student-centred strategy makes structuring learning, facilitating support, and managing assessment at scale too complex.

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The solution - a supported space for learning

Empowering students to take ownership of their learning is a fantastic idea, but for those involved in monitoring and supporting student development, it can present challenges - especially for large cohorts. For this reason, student-centred learning must be underpinned by a way to monitor engagement, deliver formative and summative feedback and assessment, and allow mentors and tutors to offer the guidance and scaffolding needed to help students shape their journey and address any skills gaps. 

The image shows reporting data in PebblePad


If you'd like to learn more about assessment of student-centred learning at scale, our recommended read would be Patrick Viney's Newcastle Business School's Dissertation Management Case Study available on the publications page of last year's PebblePad Global Conference. More than 800 students undertake the Newcastle Business School dissertation module every year, supported by over 100 academic staff. The implementation of structured PebblePad workbooks has simplified the process for students and how reporting in PebblePad's assessment space (ATLAS) has provided a management overview of the entire process.

Download a copy of our free guide to Student-Centred Learning 

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 Download a copy of our Global Trends in Higher Education Paper 

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Jodie Young is Content Manager here at PebblePad. An experienced educator, talented writer, and a genius at simplifying the complicated, Jodie spends her days planning, crafting and publishing content for the PebblePad community and wider higher education audiences. Outside of work, Jodie is a published poet and can occasionally be spotted performing at open mic events around her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. To the disappointment of some of her colleagues, she avoids employing rhyme in her copy but her expert stamp is still recognisable on many of our hugely popular publications.

CEO and founder of PebblePad, Shane has been a big presence in the world of portfolios and personal learning ever since the company's inception in 2004. It's not just his boundless enthusiasm and towering capacity for innovation that keeps PebblePad at the top of its game ... when you're 6' 10" having a list of great ideas 'as long as your arm' is somewhat of a competitive advantage!

Richard is PebblePad's Head of Brand & Communications and joined Team PebblePad as a consultant in 2012 after working in a range of L&D roles in the charity and technology sector. On any given day you're likely to find Richard with a sketch pad and more coloured pens than you can wave a stick at, leading on all things creative and strategic on the communications and brand front. Richard is super passionate about all things PebblePad, and spreading the word about PebblePad and the amazing things it can do really has become his technology baby. Outside of work, he’s the proud dad of two happy, human children.