Why is personalisation so important in business and education?

Education | International | South East
Dr Saima Rana

This article is by Dr Saima Rana, CEO and Principal at Gems World Academy and Chief Education Ambassador at Varkey Foundation.

Personalisation has fast become such an important example of the dynamic interface between technology and values. For a school, it’s an essential part of a technologically-assisted approach that fuses with an overarching set of values that places the care of each individual student at the very heart of all its practices.

Of course it’s not just in the world of education and schools that this is important. For some time now a whole roster of activities, from business to leisure, has placed a premium on understanding their stakeholders so as to enhance relationships and deliver fine-grained and targeted responses to identified needs.

Personalisation is all about enriching our understanding of each person we’re trying to help so that our responses become more focused and more precise than any generalized, rule-bound, heuristic approach.

In a school, for instance, if we know what kind of a learner a particular student is, what she has achieved in the past, where she has struggled, her hopes and aspirations, her interests and enthusiasms, her attendance record and punctuality, past test scores and assessments, behaviour, attitudes to particular areas of study and towards her teachers and so on, and if we also have comparative data to look at as well, then all this can help give an accurate and detailed picture of the student and be an essential part of building up a positive relationship with that individual. By turning data into information we can address their needs and help them achieve their goals.

Multiple approaches 

Of course there is a need for a mixture of approaches, some rule bound, some much more bespoke and personalized, but any organization not capable of responding in a fine-grained way to an individual will be letting that individual down. Too often in the past schools gave nothing more than general, rule-bound responses based on no personalized data at all, and so they failed to address the actual learning needs of their students.

In many, many cases this approach hindered progress and for some was very harmful. So personalization is very important and is now rightly seen as a key element of any successful learning environment. The use of rich, complex data bases to help students maximize their achievements and reach their goals is really a non-negotiable element of any good school, just as knowing your customers and responding to what they want is great advice for any retailer or business.

Of course personalisation is not a new concept. What is new, however, is that we are now living in an age where information and data are at the heart of everything we do. All advanced societies now depend upon information-based, intangible assets – what has come to be known as the ‘knowledge economy’ and this includes information-intensive services such as, in particular, business and property services, communications, finance, insurance, entertainment, and information-orientated public services such as education, public administration and health care.

The exponential growth of data now available because of this technological revolution is hard to grasp but is fundamental and important when we try and understand what personalization now means.

Luciano Floridi 

One of my favourite thinkers about this ‘information revolution’ is the philosopher Luciano Floridi. In his 2013 book ‘The Ethics of Information’ he gives us a helpful picture of the scale of the information revolution we are experiencing. He reports that back in 2003, at Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems, it was estimated that humanity had accumulated roughly the equivalent of twelve 50,000 year-long videos of information throughout the 300,000 years it had been on earth.

Yet they estimated that by the year 2002 alone the print, film, magnetic and optical storage media had already produced the equivalent of 5 such videos. That’s the equivalent of 37,000 libraries the size of the Library of Congress in the USA. By 2011 it was estimated that we had the equivalent of more than 1000 of those yearlong videos. We had, in Floridi’s words, entered the zettabyte era, going from 12 videos in 2002 to over 1000 by 2011. As Floridi notes: ‘Every day, enough new data is being generated to fill all US libraries eight times over’.

The neologism ‘exaflood’ captures this exponential growth in information and data, as does talk of ‘big data’. As a result of this, the gathering and use of data to support personalisation has become much more sophisticated, rich, complex and powerful. Schools have always been fairly data rich: we collect data about our students before they even arrive and continue to do so as they progress through their school life until they move out to further education or employment. But what schools in the past found very difficult to do was to use their data efficiently.


The new and continually improving AI and IT systems that are now available are helping schools to use data in ways unimaginable before the onset of this exaflood. Schools, like all the other sectors mentioned above, have become informational environments, an ‘infosphere’, to coin another of Floridi’s neologisms, and the algorithms of the new technologies assist schools in creating and using this data.

Because of this revolution, people’s expectations have changed hugely. They want you to use the information that you’ve got. They expect you to use it in a really positive way and find it progressively less credible to claim ignorance about predicable facts. When we look at shopping, for example, personalization is what shoppers want.

Around 91% of consumers are more likely to shop with companies that present them with personalized offers and recommendations and around 74% of online shoppers are frustrated when web content doesn’t target their interests. These expectations are common now, in education services as well as shopping, and we can welcome this.

This infosphere, for Floridi, ‘… denotes the whole informational environment constituted by all informational entities (thus including information agents as well), their properties, interactions, processes, and mutual relations. It is an environment comparable to, but different from, cyberspace, which is only one of its sub-regions, as it were, since it also includes offline and analogue spaces of information’.This sphere is as real as can be, a reality that brings with it the need to understand how it works, its complexities, opportunities and threats.

And like any reality, the infosphere can be hospitable or it can be inhospitable. Personalisation is a good example of what I mean when I say this. Personalization in the context of a school requires something other than good data and sophisticated tools for applying it when and if a situation requires. Blind reliance of algorithms and systems can reduce processes to being little more than the old rule-bound approaches it was supposed to replace. Personalisationrequires skillful understanding of data, of when and how it can be useful to use.

Building Trust 

But importantly, alongside well trained and skillful practitioners, personalization requires trust between those using the data and those who are being helped. Without trust then the accumulation of data can seem more like surveillance and policing than nurturing and responsiveness to needs.

Personalisation requires that institutions developing their personalized systems draw on a rich deposit of social capital, based on reciprocal relationships between all the relevant stakeholders, so that the use of data is understood as something that they consent to and want.

So in a school it is through overall trustworthiness in the institution that personalization becomes seen as part of the nurturing and caring value system designed to look out for each and every individual, as a way to positively consider all the quirks and differences that make every person unique and wonderful.

Although we are living in a very new kind of ecosystem, the infosphere asks us more than ever to draw on old ethical values and to respect, cherish and celebrate what makes each one of us special. It’s what a great school should always strive to do, and I believe that it is something that everyone everywhere in the infospehere should also be doing.

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