What Is Personalised Learning? 5 Ways That Personalisation Improves Engagement With Learning

What Is Personalised Learning? 5 Ways That Personalisation Improves Engagement With Learning
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Summary: On the face of it, the phrase seems self-explanatory: personalised learning is learning specific to the needs of individual learners. My learning isn’t your learning. However, personalised learning approaches can vary quite a lot depending on who exactly is doing the personalising.

Tailored For—Or Tailored By?

In 2005, UK educationalist Dan Buckley defined 2 ends of the personalised learning spectrum:

  • Learning tailored for the learner
  • Learning tailored by the learner

Both of these 2 types of personalisation have been possible for some time using mostly human means (e.g. one-to-one tutoring and coaching) and in fact, the term 'personalised learning' dates back to at least the 1960s. But the ability to personalise at scale, making it a viable and affordable option for organisations, only arrived with the advent of digital technology and Web 2.0.

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During the same timeframe, social change and shifts in the nature of work and employment have gone along with technological development to throw more weight towards the 'tailored by' end of the spectrum.

Most of the personalised learning approaches we see in workplace learning will be located somewhere along this spectrum, with a mix of directed and elective personalisations. However, it is now almost an article of faith among progressive L&D professionals that the business imperatives facing today's organisations make it essential to nurture and support the self-directed learner with 'tailored by' personalisation.

The extent to which this is possible—especially within heavily-regulated sectors where the demand for large quantities of compliance learning tend to dominate—might vary. Organisational culture also plays a part. So the fuel mix of directed and self-directed will not always be the same. However, it is fair to say that learning tailored by the learner has become an important and even necessary aspect of a personalised learning approach.


Another important consideration in personalising learning is how adaptive your approach is going to be.

The simpler forms of personalisation send people off down different paths according to how they present at the beginning of training and give little or no opportunity for 'mid-course corrections' thereafter. However adaptive learning allows learning to be changed and adjusted for the learner as they progress, and uncover or develop new needs in the course of their learning.

Again, this can be human-mediated, in coaching interventions, for instance, but is difficult to do at scale. Technology is increasingly solving the scale problem, with sophisticated branching, simulation-based programs, learning paths and automated assistants (or learnbots), and this is an area that will become more and more important as Artificial Intelligence (AI) develops, facilitating ever more granular personalisation and adaptivity.

So now that we've roughly defined the subject area, it's worth outlining some key good practice characteristics of a personalised learning approach for workplace learning in the modern era.

3 Principles Of Modern Personalised Learning

1. It Treats Learning As A Continuum, Rather Than A One-Off Event

Where once almost all learning was done in cohorts, and success measured by course completions, we now see the individual as the focus of learning and recognise that the process of developing that person's knowledge and skills has to be lifelong. Every hurdle scaled opens up vistas of further learning.

2. It Increases Relevance

Personalised learning brings meaning to the individual learner. It's not a tick-the-box, pass/fail exercise. It's learning that has utility, that can enhance individual performance and which brings individual reward.

3. It puts The Learner In Control

It enables the learner to learn at his or her own pace, wherever they happen to be, and in his or her own time (where appropriate). It means devolving and disseminating learning and encouraging learners not only to participate in training but actively to contribute to their learning development. This democratisation of learning is best achieved in a knowledge-sharing environment, where the real engine of learning is the learners or employees themselves.

Over the next few chapters we will expand on these principles, as we examine the practical and strategic implications of adopting a personalised learning approach within your organisation.

Personalised Learning And Employee Engagement

A change of approach in any area of organisational practice is always difficult. If you have never personalised learning to any great extent within your organisation before, you might feel daunted by the task. So it helps to have a secure focus on why you are doing it.

What tangible business benefits can you achieve with this change? What large-scale shifts in the economic landscape might it be linked to—and what are the potential dangers if you don't make the move now?

One of the biggest potential wins would be to have a decisive effect on one of the major bugbears afflicting today's organisations: poor employee engagement.

The Disengagement Epidemic

A recent Gallup report on the State of the Global Workplace found that 85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work, and estimated the economic consequences of this global "norm" at approximately $7 trillion in lost productivity. It's a problem that's been around for a while, with rates of engagement more or less stuck since 2008.

Gallup also finds that organisations with more engaged workforces perform better financially, and it has been proven in other studies that engaged employees to perform better.

Performance management and offering opportunities for learning and development are seen as key ways to improve engagement—and development opportunities show up in surveys as increasingly desirable to workers, particularly those in younger age groups.

So any initiative that stands a chance of improving employee engagement (and many feel personalised learning has the potential to do this) has got to be worthwhile, surely?

However, L&D has an engagement problem of its own.

L&D Struggles To Engage Employees With Learning

Getting people to engage with learning has proved a perennial challenge for management and L&D. Serving up the same old training fare has done nothing to solve the engagement crisis—even where a technological garnish has been added.

So-called 'click-next' eLearning has undoubtedly saved a lot of money for organisations, and allowed a great deal of training to be provided that could probably never have been afforded through human-delivered traditional means. However, undifferentiated, one-size-fits-all, top-down training—whether delivered offline or online—has proved not to be the answer.

In the current business environment the landscape can change dramatically and very quickly. The need is for agility, flexibility and the rapid acquisition of new skills. This calls for a more agile (small 'a') form of learning that can engage employees more effectively and productively with learning, transforming them into more engaged employees.

Could personalised learning be a way of doing this?

Obviously, we're talking about a large-scale problem with employee disengagement—for which there is no single solution, no silver bullet. Improvement depends on a number of factors, many of which the learning department can't do much about. However, engaging employees with learning has got to be part of the answer, and there are plenty of reasons for believing that more personalised learning could hold the key to doing that.

Here are just a few.

5 Ways That Personalisation Improves Engagement With Learning

1. Increases Relevance

To engage fully with learning, individuals need to see its relevance and applicability to their own interests and goals. Instead of having broad learning outcomes related to a general area of knowledge, it makes sense, therefore, to tie learning directly to individual job roles, and the business outcomes that will result from improving their performance in that role—and thus how they can succeed better at work. If a learner can see that a piece of training is necessary to perform a particular task, he or she can more readily understand its value.

Relevance also extends to the learning content. Does the content make sense in the context of a particular organisation or job function? Does it prioritise practice over theory? Story-lead, scenario-based learning situates learning content within a context and allows learners to explore the implications and consequences of what they are learning. Adding a gamification element simulates the challenge that learners will face when they apply the learning in a real-world environment.

Achievement can be recognised by digital badging or, or more formally, by CPD points. Personal attainment can be recorded in learners' ePortfolios that they can add to and bring with them as they move through their careers.

2. Aligns With How Modern Learners Function

Increased access to information and the influence of social media have accustomed learners to find information quickly and effortlessly at the click of a button. They soon become frustrated if that information is 'locked away'; by being embedded in a classroom session they might have to wait months to join, or buried in an unsearchable course buried in the depths of an LMS behind an unfriendly and unusable interface. They will naturally look to other more accessible (though not necessarily more reliable) sources of information.

The rise of social media has helped democratise learning. People are willing and able to share their expertise. If people have a question, they feel sure there's someone out there who can answer it. This interrogative approach to learning is not new, but the opening up of access to information has made it easier to adopt.

Organisations now face the challenge of offering this ease of access to information and immediacy of response that modern learners expect in their own training programmes.

3. Makes Learning More Digestible

Personalised learning might not have been the major driver behind the trend towards much shorter pieces of content in recent years: the lack of time available for learning probably had more to do with it. But breaking down learning content into smaller chunks makes it much easier to personalise.

Microlearning, as it has become called, could be anything from simple text to an activity, a piece of video, some refresher questions or even a tweet or blog constantly accessible through web apps or browsers. In this shorter form, individual learners can have just the piece of knowledge they themselves need from a wider subject area to plug a knowledge gap that has been identified or to perform an immediate task.

Learning content in this form can be pushed to learners through notifications that alert them to what they need to do when they need to do it. Giving people easy access to time- and context-sensitive information in this way helps support performance. You can see the appeal to employees who are meeting clients, especially off-site, or dealing with customer queries in a support centre.

Microlearning also supports collaboration in the workflow, allowing employees to have input into training. Interconnected technology makes it easier to capture knowledge from more experienced personnel. These experts can provide microlearning assets themselves and those assets can be added to the repository of resources and made easily accessible to all who need them.

4. Improves Access

Another really handy trend that has happened alongside microlearning is the use of mobile devices for business. Mobile connectivity extends access to learning into a far wider range of working situations and contexts. Making microlearning resources accessible on mobile devices means learners can learn on the go, in a place and at a time of their choosing.

The effect is to move learning closer to the point of its application, into the workflow. As learners begin to use training materials as they work, it further increases the relevance of learning. They also begin to identify gaps and further learning needs. Learning becomes a cyclical, iterative process where it is continuously applied, evaluated and revised.

5. Putting Learners In Control

These developments have the common goal of facilitating greater control for the learner. They place greater responsibility on the learner to pursue his or her learning path. They encourage personal development and transform learning from being about pushing information at learners and encouraging learners instead to pull the learning they need.

The empowerment of individual learners through the personalisation of learning can also change learning at an organisational level. As individuals take charge of their own learning needs, they begin to recognise the learning needs of others and the importance of collaboration.

The sharing of information is not confined to social media, but can also be found closer to home in work colleagues and teams. Personalisation of learning functions more effectively when the whole organisation values learning and embrace a culture of knowledge sharing. Download the eBook The Personalised Learning Guide and discover how to frame a business case for personalized learning, and deploy appropriate technology to help implement it effectively. For more valuable insights on personalised learning, watch the webinar Design A User-Centric Approach With A Learning Experience Platform (LXP).

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