Learning: this time it’s personal

By Carole Bower January 24, 2017

In the words of the late David Bowie, “everybody knows me now”.

Websites recognise me. When I go to the coffee shop, the Barista writes my name on the cup. Siri knows where I live (and keeps trying to start a conversation). An app on my phone knows how many steps I have taken today. My watch is keeping an eye on my heart rate. If I wanted to buy a new high-end car, I could customise it down to the last detail before it was even built, and a number stamped into the chassis would identify it as mine.

Amazon knows what books I have read, and what I am most likely to read next. Netflix knows at what precise point in episode 7, Season 3 of House of Cards I fell asleep, and months later will start showing me that same episode from the very same point when I finally decide to come back to it.

Facebook knows … well it slightly gives us all the horrors what Facebook knows, and a recent news story indicated that it might be trying to influence our moods through what it plays back to us based on that knowledge. We are all Zuckerberg’s lab rats now.

The point is that personalisation has seeped into our lives with insidious stealth, to the extent that we don’t just accept personalisation of services from the businesses and governments we deal with – we actively expect it.

Personalisation and learning

According to Carole Bower, Head of Learning Solutions at Lumesse, this is creating an expectation among learners that the digital learning provided by their employer should be more relevant to them. ‘For many years, digital learning has been a bit of a sheep dip. Let’s put everybody through this piece of learning and at the end of it all we can tick a box to say they’ve all mastered that subject… But have they actually learned anything?’

Personalisation is key to making learning feel more relevant to the learner, Carole believes. And without that personal relevance in place, it is hard to achieve the emotional buy-in necessary for real learning to take place. This is a belief backed up by science.

Research indicates that personalisation could have a crucial role to play in making digital learning more engaging and effective. Personalisation can significantly increase both cognitive trust and emotional trust in an online system (Komiak & Benbasat 2006). A study of algebra students has shown that those given problems personalised to their out-of-school interests in areas such as sports, music and movies, solved problems faster and more accurately than the control group – concluding that, ‘adaptive learning technologies that utilize interest may be a powerful way to support learners in gaining fluency with abstract representational systems’. (Walkington, Candace A. 2013).

Beyond ‘sheepdip’ elearning

A simple form of personalisation already used quite widely in elearning is the pre-test. Learners are given an initial quiz, and based on what they already know about a subject, pages or modules they clearly don’t need are filtered out and the programme can concentrate on the knowledge that is missing.

This in itself can save a huge amount of learning time and increases learner engagement, but is only the most basic form of personalisation, and doesn’t go much beyond a very basic type of instruction focused on information transfer.

However, Carole is keen to talk about more sophisticated forms of personalisation that can grapple with higher-order training tasks such as behaviour change.

Personalisation and behaviour change

Simple, pre-test-based personalisation allows us to know more about the learner at the point where the learning begins: e.g. how much do they know already about the subject, what is their role within the organisation, etc. But a more sophisticated type of personalisation, using more complex branching, can allow us to discover more about them as they progress through the content.

Based on what we learn – from how they react to the content, and to questions that are posed to them along the way – we can alter the learning experience. What this enables is a type of learning  there we can, for instance, get the learner to examine their preconceptions and attitudes, and then present material that gives them an alternative view of the subject in question. We can introduce them to a different perspective that they might not previously have encountered. We can help people create new connections in their thinking – or to recall and reflect upon their prior experiences. This allows us, in a real sense, to do behavioural learning in digital.

Such an approach is particularly appropriate for leadership audiences, helping people to embrace situations where there is sometimes no right or wrong answer. It can be especially useful for learning aimed at those among the top echelon who don’t necessarily acknowledge that they need to change.

Carole has worked on many such programmes, which belie the tarnished image often given to elearning as a low-grade type of intervention only suitable for brute information transfer. And no longer is this type of sophisticated digital learning possible only with the assistance of an external vendor. With a content authoring tool such as Lumesse’s CourseBuilder, which supports sophisticated branching, in-house departments can create more personalised digital learning too.


At the same time that we are seeing more personalisation in learning, we are also seeing greater openness towards the use of techniques and approaches borrowed from computer games. Where game based learning was once a discrete (and fairly specialised) category within digital learning, we are now seeing widespread use of gamification. According to Carole, these two things may not be totally unrelated. ‘Gaming is an intensely personalised experience’.

When you are playing a computer game, even a massively multiplayer online game (MOOG), your experience is a very personal, individualised one. You have lives, you have skill levels, you can acquire clothing, objects, badges and so forth; you might have a customised nickname and avatar; your progress through the levels of a game is tracked, and if play is interrupted you pick up where you left off. It’s all about you.

While there is still, doubtless, as much resistance as ever in certain quarters to the idea of letting people play computer games on company time, importing gamification techniques into learning programmes is now pretty much mainstream thinking. This is perhaps due to the way that gamification, as a concept, has invaded so many other areas of business life – from HR systems to Marketing.

Personalisation beyond the course

So far we have talked about personalisation of learning mostly in the context of a course; the formal, 10% within the 70:20:10 formulation. However, workplace learning has other dimensions, and personalisation is important in all of them.

Learning platforms are undergoing a change too, with less emphasis on centralised ‘learner management’ and more on providing a learner experience that is individual and personalised. Learning portals, once central hubs where learners came to ‘get the message’, are now just as likely to support and mediate individualised learner journeys, as the course loses its previous position as the default unit of online instruction.

xAPI (the standard formerly known as Tin Can) promises a future of distributed tracking, where data can be captured from a far wider and less uniform range of learner activities. In fact, over the whole area of digital systems focused on learning and talent, we are seeing the effect of a movement from company-driven to people-driven engagement. This in turn is part of a wider trend in the way we work.

The world of digital learning can seem like a bubble, divorced from the wider world outside; divorced, even, from reality. We speak an arcane language, use buzzwords that mean nothing to anyone from outside the tribe, and think in ways that others find hard to comprehend.  But personalisation is part of the general weather – something that affects us all – and learning is
changing stealthily but steadily under its influence. This is one genie that is definitely not going back in the bottle.

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