Customisation vs. Personalisation in Course Offerings

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, customisation and personalisation are defined as follows:

  • customize: verb [ T ] uk usually customise UK — to make or change something according to the buyer’s or user’s needs
  • personalize: verb [ T ] uk usually personalise UK —​ to make something suitable for the needs of a particular person. If you personalize an object, you change it or add to it so that it is obvious that it belongs to or comes from you.

In this post, I’m going to take a more extreme position, contrasting them as:

  • customisation: the changes a vendor or service provider makes;
  • personalisation: the changes a user makes.

Note that a user may play a role in customisation. For example, when buying a car, or computer, a buyer might customise it during purchase using a configurator that lets them select various options: the customisation is done by the vendor, albeit under the control of the buyer. They may then personalise it when they receive it by putting stickers all over it.

One of the things I’ve been pondering in the context of how we deliver software to students is the extent to which we offer them customised and personalisable environments.

In the second half of the post Fragment — Some Rambling Thoughts on Computing Environments in Education I decompose computing environments into three components (PLC): a physical component (servers); a logical component (computing environment: operating system, installed packages, etc); and a cultural component (personal preference text editors, workflows, etc.).

When we provide students with a virtual machine, we provide them with a customised environment at the course (module) level. Each student gets the same logical virtual machine.

The behaviour of the machine in a logical sense will be the same for each student. But students have different computers, with different resource profiles (different processor speeds, or memory, for example).

So their experience of running the logical machine on their personal computer will be a personalised one.

As personalisation (under my sense of the term) it is outside our control.

If we offer students access to the logical machine running on our servers, we customise the physical layer in terms of compute resource, but students will still experience a personalised experience based on the speed and latency of their network connection.

At this point, I suggest that we can control what students receive in terms of the logical component (customisation), and we can suggest minimum resource requirements to try to ensure a minimum acceptable experience, if not parity of experience, in terms of the physical component.

But there is then a tension about the extent to which we tell students how they can personalise their physical component. If we are shipping a VM, should we tell students with powerful computers how to increase the memory size, or number of cores, used by the virtual machine? The change would be a personalisation implemented at the logical layer (changing default settings) that exploits personalisation at the lower physical layer. Or would that be unfair to students with low specced machines who cannot make changes at the logical layer that other students might be able to make at the logical layer?

If it takes the student with the lowest specced machine an hour to run a particularly expensive computation, should every student have to take an hour? Or should we tell students who are in a position to run the computation on their higher specced machine how to change the logical layer to let them run the activity in 5 minutes?

At the cultural layer, I would contend that we should be encouraging students to explore personalisation.

If we are running a course that involves an element of programming using a particular set of programming libraries, we can provide students with a logical environment containing all the required libraries. But should we also control the programming editor environment, particularly if the student is a seasoned developer, perhaps in another language, with a pre-existing workflow and a highly tuned, personalised editing environment?

In our TM351 Data Management and Analysis course, we deliver material to students using a virtual machine and Jupyter notebooks. To complete the course assessment, we require students to develop some code and present a data investigation in a notebook. For seasoned developers, the notebook environment is not necessarily the best environment in which to develop code, so when one student who lived in a Microsoft VS Code editor at work wanted to develop code in that personalised environment using our customised logical environment, that seemed fine to me.

Reflecting on this, it seems to me that at the cultural level we can make recommendations about what tools to use and manage our delivery of the experience in terms of: this is how to do this academic thing we are teaching in this cultural environment (a particular editor, for example) but if you want to personalise the cultural environment, that is fine (and perhaps more than that: it is right and proper…).

To riff on TM351 again, the Jupyter notebook environment we provide is customised (preconfigured) at the logical level with preinstalled extensions and customised at the cultural layer with certain of the extensions pre-enabled (a spell checker is enabled, for example, and a WYSIWYG markdown editor). But students are also free to personalise the notebook environment at the cultural level by enabling their own selection of preinstalled notebook extensions. They can also go further, and personalise the logical component by installing additional extensions that can facilitate personalisation at the cultural level, with the caveat that we only guarantee that things work using the logical component we provided students with.

PS I originally started pondering customisation vs personalisation as a rant against “personalisation” in education. I’d argue that it is actually “customisation” and an example of the institution imposing different customised offerings at the individual student level.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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