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How to make personalized learning work (and how not to)

August 24, 2021 - 18 min read


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What is personalized learning?

What is the primary purpose of personalized learning?

Does personalized learning work?

4 myths about personalized learning debunked

Personalized learning in the workplace

How to plan a personalized learning strategy

Examples of personalized learning

Personalized learning works — if you get it right

Blame it on technology. In some circles, personalized learning has gotten a bad rap in recent years. Many people believe it has failed to improve our learning experiences.

Critics claim that relying on technology decreases learner engagement. This slows progress toward learning goals.

But are these claims valid, or are they a myth? And how can we address them to improve personalized education?

Let’s take a deep dive into personalized learning to answer these questions and more.

What is personalized learning?

So what exactly is personalized learning?

Personalized learning is a type of teaching in which the topics, areas of focus, pace of learning, and methods used are tailored to each learner’s needs. 

The content, goals, and learning objectives vary from learner to learner. The activities are relevant to each person. Personalized learning can also be a form of personal development

Technology has been a catalyst for new approaches to make personalized learning affordable and accessible. But personalized learning doesn't necessarily require technology, and technology is not personalized learning.

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to personalized learning. They are based on different theories about how humans learn.

A brief history of personalized learning

The concept of personalized learning is not new. It first emerged in the school system over 100 years ago. However, personalized learning dates back much further as dedicated tutors over the centuries would have personalized the content, and methods for learning or experiencing it, to the fortunate learner who employed them.

John Dewey proposed the first theory in 1916. Dewey argued that we can optimize learning by tapping into each student’s passions

This method focuses on project-based learning around a core topic of interest. It also allows students to experiment, ask questions, and take risks. 

The second approach dates from the 1950s. Psychologist B. F. Skinner began experimenting with teaching machines. He based these machines on his experiments with rats and pigeons. 

Skinner based his theory on students mastering the academic content set out in a defined curriculum. 

Teachers assess the students’ level of competency in each area. They then create a personalized learning plan for each one. The goal is to get all the students to the same level of knowledge and ability. 

In the 21st century, the business world has adopted the idea of personalized learning. In today's version, leaders see the potential of personalized learning to more effectively keep employees up-to-speed with changing technologies and fill skills gaps. Personalized learning as an answer to prepackaged corporate training programs is seen as a way to improve employee learning and development and engage employees.

Some companies try to do this by customizing training programs to suit employee’s individual needs. Others promote a continuous learning environment and focus more on supporting self-directed learning from an array of third-party and non-traditional sources.


What is the primary purpose of personalized learning?

The purpose of personalized learning is to customize learning to best support individual needs, abilities, and backgrounds.

This allows the learner to study at the level and pace most suitable to them and achieve the outcomes that are most relevant.

Through custom learning experiences, more learners can improve their results. This includes:

A personalized learning program can help people overcome challenges. They achieve results that they may not have achieved otherwise.

It can also lessen the stress that often occurs during the learning process.

Does personalized learning work?

To understand whether it works, let’s take a look at what some of the research on personalized learning says. 

According to HR professionals, personalized learning works. 75% percent of them told CompTIA they intend to take a personalized approach to employee training in 2021.

But there’s a caveat. Personalized learning should take place in a culture of continuous learning. Stand-alone training modules are ineffective.

Relevance and meaningfulness are also key to creating a successful personalized training program.

The program and learning environment should be conducive to sparking curiosity and motivation. This is why self-study programs are often ineffective. 

The most successful programs incorporate both self-study and interactive study.

The role of tech in personalized learning

Key technology trends have driven the changes in personalized learning. In many cases, technology has allowed new learning approaches to be tested out in cost-effective and broadly accessible ways.

They include:

  • Personalization and adaptive learning
  • Data-driven assessments
  • Employee-led learning
  • Experiential learning environments
  • Virtual instructor-led training
  • Self-directed learning
  • Augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR)
  • Bite-sized resources and microlearning (such as tweets, memes, short videos, or pins)

But there are mixed opinions about the role of technology. And people disagree about its potential to help or hinder the learning process.

Professionals in the Asia-Pacific region expect artificial intelligence (AI) to improve personalized training. 50% of them support it.

Their colleagues in Europe and North America are more skeptical. 40% and 37% of them support it, respectively.


4 myths about personalized learning debunked

It seems personalized learning gets mixed reviews. So, is it actually ineffective? Or is it an implementation problem?

Let’s examine four of the main arguments against personalized learning.

1. Personalized learning relies too much on technology

One researcher argued that personalized learning is ineffective. They say this is because of its heavy reliance on e-learning. But that doesn't have to be true — at least not if the program is designed well.

Computers and technology play a supporting role in the personalized learning experience. This includes AI. But online training has its limitations. 

Instruction from a trainer and interaction with a group are essential. An instructor can inspire and motivate students on their learning journey. This is true even in a virtual setting.

2. Personalized learning means individual training

Personalized training can take place within the framework of a group training program. 

People on different learning paths can interact as part of group activities. But they also attend individual sessions tailored to their unique needs.

3. Personalized learning is self-paced

What do you see when you think of personalized learning? 

Perhaps you picture yourself alone trying to learn the company’s new compliance manual by heart. After all, we’ve all been there. But this is not what personalized learning should look like.

A personalized learning plan may include solo study time. But an instructor who sets the pace and provides interactive training should lead it.

4. Personalized learning is not human-centered

Simply providing training software is an ineffective, one-size-fits-all approach. People need interaction with a trainer and other students.

Personalized learning programs should address individual learning needs through learning activities. 


Personalized learning in the workplace 

The concept of personalized learning was developed for the education system. But, it is equally relevant in the workplace.

Personalized learning experiences improve employee engagement with and retention of the learning resources. This is because customization makes the content relevant to each individual.

Adapting the training program to each employee’s learning style helps them to gain new skills more quickly. This aids their career progression.

Customized training aligns employees with their current and future goals. This helps them identify new skills they may need to achieve these goals.

It also helps with the onboarding process. New hires are more motivated when they receive support to develop the skills they need.

Companies with a personalized approach to corporate training are more likely to attract and keep top talent through reskilling and upskilling. They also have higher levels of employee engagement.

Organizations should cultivate a continuous learning culture that encourages ongoing learning and mentoring. This is more effective than running separate training programs.

How to plan a personalized learning strategy 

A good personalized learning strategy includes all the tools and resources employees need. It will help them reach their goals, regardless of their skills or abilities.

Are you ready to take a personalized approach to corporate learning? If so, follow this step-by-step guide:

Step 1: define the goals

Is your goal to get all the members of a team to the same level? Or do they need to develop different skills depending on their role or professional goals?

Answering these questions first will help you identify the approach to use.

First, you define the company’s goals. Then, work with individual employees to establish their goals. They should align with both their personal aspirations and organizational needs.

Setting these objectives is the crucial first step. From here, you will be able to define the pace and methodology for each learner.

Step 2: assess your employees

Once you’ve defined the objectives, you need to assess each employee’s knowledge and skills. For example, you can do this through tests and interviews. This step will help you set a time frame for each learning program.

Step 3: create the learning journey

Design custom learning experiences for each employee. Make sure they include both individual and group instruction with a trainer. 

This will allow each learner to achieve their objectives using methods tailored to their needs and capacity.

Step 4: identify the learning materials

Decide which interactive e-learning materials you will use to support the program. Make sure that the content and exercises are relevant and meaningful for each individual. 

The software and interfaces should be intuitive and easy to use. This step can be optimized with the help of AI.

Step 5: make sure the material is accessible

It’s essential that your software is compatible with all types of devices. This includes mobile, tablet, and computer.

You should also ensure it has accessibility options, such as subtitles and transcripts on videos and audio versions of texts.

Make sure students can access the material at all times and ask for help when they need it.

Step 6: assign the instructors

Assign instructors based on the needs and personal preferences of each employee. Again, AI can make this process more efficient. 

Trainers should fulfill the role of coaches rather than just teachers.  Doing this well means ensuring instructors are skilled in facilitating the type of mixed group and individual learning desired. They also need to be comfortable and confident with whatever technologies are used to support the program. They monitor progress and give support when necessary. They also help learners stay motivated and accountable.

Step 7: use relevant and meaningful exercises

A successful training program doesn’t rely too heavily on theory. Instead, it leans on relevant and meaningful exercises that facilitate learning and retention. 

Practical exercises help learners retain more than when they passively receive information. 

Personalized learning might also rely more heavily on instruction and guidance delivered directly in the work context, coaching an employee through a task in real-time or designing a campaign together. Real-time feedback and reflection will accelerate the learning in these settings.


Examples of personalized learning 

Are you ready to start (or improve) your personalized learning program? If so, take a look at these three examples to help you get inspired.

1. Columbia Business School

Columbia Business School’s YouTube channel is an example of microlearning. Its micro-content strategy gives students flexibility and facilitates mobile learning. 

Their lessons are short and focused on one topic. This gives students easy access to relevant information.

The bite-sized lessons feature faculty members and students breaking down complex business topics. This makes the content more engaging and helps improve learning outcomes.

2. Air Methods

Air Methods is a helicopter company in Colorado. It provides a medical transport service to 100,000 people per year. 

Being responsible for so many lives requires training of the highest standard. That’s why Air Methods decided to start using AI and personalized training for their pilots in 2016.

The introduction of a personalized learning approach increased pilots’ engagement with their learning. It also helped the company attract new talent.

Air Methods has also saved money by cutting their expenditure on in-person training by 50%.

3. LaSalle Network

LaSalle Network is a recruiting firm based in Chicago that walks their talk when it comes to personalized learning. They’re aware of the value of cultivating talent from within, which is why 90% of its management staff started at entry level.

LaSalle makes a point of regularly asking their employees which skills they want to develop or which areas interest them. Not only do HR managers pose these questions, but also managers and mentors at every level of the organization.


Personalized learning works — if you get it right 

Like all things, personalized learning has both advantages and disadvantages. But the main argument against it is that technology hinders learning outcomes. This is easy to remedy.

Personalized education should include a combination of both human instruction and digital tools.

Organizations should avoid using it as a buzzword. They should focus on creating a company culture of continuous learning and growth. 

BetterUp’s AI-driven digital coaching service can support companies in achieving both. Discover how we can help you and your employees grow.

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Published August 24, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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