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Bridging the story and children's unique worlds: researching digital personalised books

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 25 April 2017

Natalia Kucirkova
Personalisation is a buzzword in the business world, especially now that adverts can follow us all over the Internet. But personalisation – or ‘personalised learning’ – has also been a recurring trend in education, with the aim of providing a more tailored education for every child.
With the advent of customisable hardware and algorithmic recommendation systems, differentiated and individualised learning have taken on new dimensions in the form of digital personalised learning.
Research needs to identify the pros and cons of digital personalised learning, but so far, there are two sides to the story. On one hand, technology supports individualised learning that can be motivational for students and encourage their own contributions and creativity. On the other, personalisation algorithms can reduce individualisation to mere monitoring, measuring and rating.
The current model of personalised education tends to favour the latter practices, inspired by business models where personal data are used to measure customers’ engagement and provide them with targeted offers. Dr Liz Fitzgerald from The Open University and I outlined the limitations of such “Facebook-inspired models” of personalised education back in 2015.
In our recently published article, Dimensions of personalisation in technology-enhanced learning: a framework and implications for design, co-authored with other OU colleagues Ann Jones, Simon Cross, Rebecca Ferguson, Christothea Herodotou, Garron Hillaire and Eileen Scanlon, we specify seven key dimensions relevant for research and design of effective technology-enhanced personalised education.
The article considers alternative ways in which personalisation can be harnessed in education and outlines five components that need to be considered in research analysis and design of personalised learning environments:

  • The type of learning where personalisation occurs
  • What personal characteristics of the learner may be addressed
  • Who/what is doing the personalisation
  • How is personalisation carried out
  • The impact/beneficiaries of the personalisation

The components are relevant for any form of technology-enabled form of personalised learning, including Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS) and Adaptive Educational Hypermedia (AEH); Adaptive assessment; Science inquiry learning; Gaming and informal learning; Learning analytics and personalised books.
Digital personalised books are at the heart of an ESRC-funded project I lead in the IOE’s Department of Learning and Leadership. Such books can be thought of as bridging the story and personal worlds. Basic personalised books replace the names of key story characters with the names of the readers, while more advanced personalised books adjust the entire plot to a child’s name. In their digital versions, they offer room for the child’s own content, including the addition of their own drawings to the book illustrations (see Mr Glue Stories for example).
Analysing personalised books using the five-level framework we can see that thus far, personalised books have been used in less formal learning environments such as homes and after-school clubs. In identifying a suitable role for them in classrooms, designers need to work with teachers to identify the learning opportunities of these new tools.
While paper-based (printed) personalised books tend to be developed by adults for children, digital personalised books are more open to the child’s authorship. In terms of the third level of the framework (Who/what is doing the personalisation), there is thus a tension in the authorship and format of personalised books. The value of parents’ authorship is well-recognised and it is important that both parents and teachers become more actively involved in the production of the digital content that children access. Books created by parents and/or children are more likely than traditional books to diversify children’s literature with authentic and unique content. Personalised books created on iPads positively affect parent-child dynamics of shared book reading at home.
Our project has four phases, with the first focused on teachers’ and designers’ views and attitudes towards digital personalised books. The questions that we will be asking are: How can we ensure that digital personalised books do not fall into a technological abyss of digital gadgetry? In which aspect of personalisation are you particularly interested in and why? Drop me a line at n.kucirkova@ucl.ac.uk
Image: adapted from iPad dream #3, by Lance Shields via Flickr

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