Personalizing Distance Education

People at computers falling through crack in the road

Are your online courses too stuffy?  Clark and Mayer’s (2011) personalization principle refers to the practice of making e-learning more personable to increase learner outcomes. The authors recommended the following research-based personalization practices: informal written language (e.g., active language, use of contractions), human voice, polite language structure, and the use of agents (intelligent tutors built-in to the system).

Most of the research findings made sense to me; I’ve always thought that instruction should be more personable. However, I was amazed to learn about the significant impact on the use of personal pronouns. Mayer, Fennell, Farmer, and Campbell (2004) found that simply changing the word “the” to “your” in a lesson script aided transfer. Clark and Mayer propose research be conducted as to the long-term effects of personalization practices on students within a course.

Will these positive outcomes diminish over the length of the course? I don’t think so. As long as all content is kept in the same conversational style the effect should remain. I base this on my understanding of human nature and the literature cited below. We appreciate polite language that is simple (active) and concise. We also prefer to hear the human voice to that of an android.

The authors identified a few research studies on gender preferences for agents, but these were single studies and not generalizable to all content in all learning situations. Personally, I was disappointed to read the findings that both men and women prefer to learn from male voices on the topic of technology.  However, it wasn’t surprising, as our family, schools, and society shape our understanding of the world. At the workplace, I’ve encountered the stereotype that assumes that only men can explain/know technology.

I think it’s also important to add an image of yourself to the syllabus or About Me section of your e-course.  I haven’t found any research basis in this yet, but I think it helps the learner connect with the human side of the instructor. As an instructional designer, I  recommend that faculty add a photo to their course and email account. From my own e-learning experiences, I actually recognized an instructor at a conference from my memory of their thumbnail photo in their emails, so I believe imagery is a powerful tool!  What about you? How do you make distance education personal for your students?


Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2011). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Mayer, R. E., Fennell, S., Farmer, L., & Campbell, J. (2004). A personalization effect in multimedia learning: Students learn better when words are in conversational style rather than formal style. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 389-395.

Sandra Annette Rogers, Ph.D.

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