Personalized Education Plans Earn Support

Patricia Beeson head and shoulders, wearing black and white jacketUniversity of Pittsburgh administrators traditionally thought that student success was reflected primarily in graduation rates, said Patricia E. Beeson, Pitt’s provost and senior vice chancellor.

They later found, she said, that measuring student success required a multifaceted approach that considered experiences — for example, internships and study abroad — that catered to students’ individual preferences.

What is personalized education?

Pitt defines it as enhancing learning through tailored engagement in educational activities that reflect each student's unique identities, experiences, interests, abilities and aspirations.

Review a full description of the program or learn more about the initiative.

With this perspective in mind, Beeson and her colleagues in the Office of the Provost launched the Personalized Education Initiative to encourage faculty, staff and students to personalize the academic experience. The first recipients of grants from the Personalized Education Grants Program were recognized by Beeson at a March 26 reception.

“As the higher education landscape and the needs of our students continue to evolve, our efforts to transform the student experience are setting a new standard,” said Beeson. “Through innovative uses of technology and novel approaches to teaching, advising and mentoring, Pitt is ideally positioned to provide national leadership in the area of personalized education.”

According to Beeson, the initiative received 42 proposals; 17 projects were selected for funding ranging from $1,000 to $26,000 each. 

A selection of the projects — highlighted below — illustrate what personalized education looks like in practice.

Request your tutor

In his research on geographic information systems (GIS), Swanson School of Engineering faculty member Robert Kerestes has seen how programs like Google Maps and Yelp can match people to what they are looking for based on location. Kerestes, director of the electrical engineering undergraduate program and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, wondered if GIS was applicable to academics, too.

He partnered with his colleagues Samuel Dickerson, director of the computer engineering undergraduate program and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Anita Persaud, director of retention. Together, they drafted a proposal for a real-time tutor sourcing application.

The app, similar to ride-sharing apps like Lyft or Uber, would allow students to locate and request tutors near them that have academic expertise in a particular subject. At first, students would have access to a hand-picked pool of tutors, but the app would eventually allow people who are interested in serving as tutors to offer their services. Kerestes hopes to use the grant to allow students to use the app at no charge.

In the initial phase of the project, the app’s use will be limited primarily to members of the Swanson School. Kerestes imagines expanding the project to other parts of the University and even outside Pitt at a later phase.

Scoring the perfect shot

Pitt Athletics aims to train its student-athletes to perform the best in their respective sports. Now, the department hopes to apply that same level of training to students interested in careers in sports broadcasting.

In anticipation of the ACC Network’s television launch in 2019, Pitt Studios will facilitate three internships that will give students experience in live broadcast production, broadcast engineering or filmmaking and post-production in a new broadcast facility at the John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center.

Project leaders are Paul Barto, associate athletic director for broadcast and video production; Kelly Hammonds, assistant athletic director for broadcast and video production; Greg Daniels, director of broadcast and video production; Liam Sporrer, director of broadcast engineering; and Kevin Wheeler, ACC Network assistant producer.

“We’re very excited for the chance to engage students in such a meaningful way as part of this program, and students always bring a lot of energy, so it’s always rewarding to have them around and be a part of their learning process,” said Daniels.

Content created by Pitt Studios will support the ACC Network’s coverage of the 15 ACC-member schools both on TV and online. ACC Network partner ESPN will train Pitt Studios on the network’s expectations for content.

“The launch of the ESPN ACC Network will give students a tremendous opportunity to work alongside industry professionals. The combination of hands-on training and professional networking opportunities will put Pitt students in a unique position after graduation to find employment in the field of digital media and broadcast,” said Hammonds.

Who’s researching?

In her needs assessment of clinician educators, Eliza Beth Littleton, a research assistant professor in Pitt’s School of Medicine, found that students would benefit from a formal network that matches students and faculty with shared research and career interests.

She reached out to Kar-Hai Chu, assistant professor of medicine, about social networks and to Dmitriy Babichenko, professor of practice at the School of Computing and Information (SCI). Babichenko connected Littleton with Peter Brusilovsky, a professor at SCI. Among Brusilovsky’s projects was an online system that helped conference attendees connect with other attendees in a particular field. Partnering with Brusilovsky, Babichenko and Chu, Littleton began to explore adapting his system for use at Pitt.

The structure of the hybrid recommender system will be familiar to those who subscribe to Netflix. Instead of receiving movie and TV recommendations based on preferred programming, students will be directed toward particular researchers based on their areas of study, prior research experience and other factors.

“Oftentimes I think student motivation is low because they simply don’t know what exciting things are out there and they don’t have any idea what it has to do with them,” said Littleton.

Other collaborators on the project include Lorin Grieve, instructor of pharmacy and therapeutics; Ravi Patel, lead innovation advisor in pharmacy and therapeutics; and Jordan Ariel Barria Pineda and Chun-Hua Tsai, graduate students at SCI.

Customizable community engagement

Shortly after her arrival at Pitt in 2017, Lina Dostilio, assistant vice chancellor for community engagement, became aware of the breadth of high quality community engagement programs available to students. While she noticed an informal network among the various civic programs at Pitt, she and many of the program facilitators thought that students could benefit from having greater knowledge of the community-engaged programs available to them and more formal assistance identifying which programs match their civic proclivities and interests.

“Research indicates that community-oriented students who have high quality civic experiences have a greater sense of belonging at their universities and demonstrate enhanced civic growth,” said Dostilio.

Through a coalition of faculty, staff and students, the Pathways for Civic Growth: Implementing a Model of Civic Mentoring will raise the visibility of community-engaged programming at Pitt; develop a diagnostic tool, modeled after one created by a Stanford University program, that will help students identify which programs match their interests; and develop a mentoring model that can be used by student leaders, faculty or staff to help students choose their next community-engaged experience so they can build a customized sequence of civic experiences into their Pitt education.

In addition to Dostilio, the coalition includes Keith Caldwell, director of the Bachelor of Arts in Social Work Program; Linda DeAngelo, assistant professor of higher education and faculty fellow in the Center for Urban Education; Thistle Elias, assistant professor of behavioral and community health sciences in the Graduate School of Public Health; Michael Glass, lecturer in the Urban Studies Program; Holly Hickling, academic community engagement advisor in the University Honors College; Ron Idoko, director of Pitt clubs and councils in the Pitt Alumni Association; Zuri Kent-Smith, executive vice president of the Student Government Board; Noah Krampe, student leader with Connections4Health and Students Consulting for Nonprofit Organizations; Shenay Jeffrey, outreach coordinator of PittServes; and Esohe Osai, director of services for Pitt-Assisted Communities and Schools.