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This Time It’s Personal: 3 Models of Learning Personalization to Avoid Jumping the Shark

This blog article was written prior to LEO Learning becoming part of GP Strategies. 

Jaws: The Revenge is universally panned as one of the worst films in the history of cinema. However, this so-bad-it’s-great classic is not without its merits. For starters, it introduced the now-ubiquitous tagline “This time it’s personal,” which I have affectionately borrowed as the title of this post. Additionally, it taught audiences three fascinating lessons:

  1. Sir Michael Caine is so talented that he is capable of winning both Razzies and Oscars.
  2. A franchise about killer sharks can unironically and quite literally “jump the shark.”
  3. Personal connection is everything.

Re-read number three if needed. If you’ve seen the fourth installment of the Jaws franchise, you’ll know that a massive Great White follows Lorraine Gary (the matriarch of the first installment) all the way from Long Island to the Bahamas. This is a logic leap that I cannot begin to justify, but suffice it to say that the events of this movie stem from a 20-year vendetta between a shark family and a grandmother.

Now consider yourself as the grandmother, and your learners as the shark(s). Are you still with me? Learners within your organization will follow you if they feel a personal connection to the learning content and to the overall user experience. On the contrary, if they feel the learning is irrelevant or too “off the shelf,” you run the risk of losing them.

This is where learning personalization comes in…

The History of Learning Personalization

The concept of learning personalization is nothing new. In fact, a cursory search of academic databases will yield a plethora of journal articles dating back to the 1960s. Early discussions focused on the impact of “teaching machines” within the context of audio visual studies, as well as individualized or even self-directed learning in the context of an overarching group curriculum.

Now, learning personalization primarily focuses on modes and channels of learning as part of a greater blended journey. Naturally, with the prominence of remote working and distance learning, this contemporary view leans heavily toward eLearning.

The beauty of learning personalization is that it has evolved over the decades to meet the needs of learners and learning designers alike. In this way, its definition is largely subjective and should not be oversimplified or constricted. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of personalization is to establish and sustain connections between learners and content—the “how” and “why” will fall into place naturally once the “what” and “who” are determined.

A Broader Definition of Learning Personalization

Based on your own experiences, you likely already have an idea of what personalized learning is or isn’t. As we begin to broaden our definition, we will consider a set of overarching characteristics of personalized learning. Working from this base of assumptions will help as we move into tangible models that can inform our decision-making to personalize learning.

So, what is personalized learning? It’s about:

  • Empowering the learner to take ownership of their learning by providing resources that allow them to navigate more freely 
  • Offering various pathways and assigning them to groups of learners based on shared need(s) within the organization
  • Differentiating content that looks beyond role to consider factors such as time commitment, motivation level, prior knowledge, and values

Again, when we broaden our definition and our perspective, we begin to think of ways we can be more intentional as we design learning solutions for users that feel meaningful, relevant, and unique to the individual. Ultimately, we want learners to say, This was made for me.

3 Models of Learning Personalization

Now that we’ve agreed on the general parameters of personalized learning, we can begin to explore frameworks that can help to develop new and revamp existing learning solutions.

As you become more familiar with the models showcased here, you’ll begin to notice a degree of overlap, which is expected. At the heart of each model is the ultimate goal of catering to the individual, often while meeting a larger and more overarching organizational need.

1) The Empowerment Model

This personalized learning model provides the learner with a sense of choice and variety. Contrary to traditional, locked eLearning modules that require the learner to listen to an audio clip in its entirety or watch a video through to the last second, learning experiences developed under this lens allow the learner to come and go as they please. When learners feel unencumbered and are encouraged to engage in open exploration, they feel they have a degree of control over what they learn and how they learn it.

Zero-waste learning occurs as a result. Without the confines of “busy work” or box-checking formalities, learners make real connections with the content. Paired with interspersed opportunities for reflection and self-assessment, your organization will know, in real time, how learners feel about the overall experience and what they are gaining as a result.

Adaptive learning is a popular contemporary example of the Empowerment Model in action. Area9 Lyceum, one of LEO Learning’s partners in innovative design, specializes in this area. Their platform ensures that a learner’s path shifts based on the responses they provide, alongside their self-reported confidence rankings. Learners are allowed to opt out of content and move on to more challenging concepts as they demonstrate mastery.

2) The Pathways Model

This framework is often defined by a unique path for each learner or learner category. These unique paths, in turn, comprise a larger, more overarching blended learning journey. These paths may be defined and assigned by the organization, or they may be determined by the learner. Interactions that determine custom branching or next steps may be explicitly controlled by the learner. Or they may be implicitly determined by decisions a learner makes or the answers they provide within the course or component of a blend. 

Within an overarching blend, unique learner paths may converge and diverge as engineered by learning designers, and specific LMS capabilities can be leveraged to this end. For example, as businesses search for ways to maintain a sense of community while working remotely, social learning is currently trending. Learner paths may reconvene for online interactions that emulate face-to-face discussion, from asynchronous forum threads to user-generated video interactions.

3) The Differentiation Model

One of the most common and traditional ways to enact the Differentiation Model is by adding a role selector to a course—but we can dive so much deeper. Learners benefit when content is differentiated based on time commitment, motivation level, prior knowledge, and even values.

We can differentiate among learners by assigning groupings, or allowing them to self-identify where appropriate. Doing so can meet compliance requirements, or may ensure that an overall blend meets the needs of multiple categories of learners, to name two examples.

For learning designers who may hail from an HR background, think of specific learners who need HR refreshers or courses that are part of a specific performance plan. Alternatively, consider onboarding a new hire—the path of a recent college graduate may differ from the path of a seasoned professional, and rightfully so. Differentiation may occur at a manager’s discretion following an initial assessment of competencies.

Personalization in Practice

The solutions we design are as unique as our intended audience.

For this reason, we must get to know them and their needs early on. As you’re tasked with planning a learning experience and tailoring it for a new audience, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is your process for model selection?
  • Who are your learners? What is their preference? What is their work environment?
  • What are participants expected to do as a result of this opportunity?

The more complex or more involved your answers become, the more likely you’ll start to consider multiple pathways, multiple resources, alternate or complementary versions of a learning experience, and so on. Don’t be afraid to mix and match strategies that fit, or to rethink the ones that don’t.

Once you choose an appropriate model (or hybrid of the models covered here), let it be your guide. Consider the outcomes—both intended and unintended. Continue to build your solution from this vantage point. As you open up to more creative and customized blends, you’ll find that this time—and from here on out—it’s personal.

Need an expert hand in designing and delivering personalized learning programs? Get in touch today to see how GP Strategies can help!

About the Authors

Derek Phillips

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