Training organizations are moving toward an ideal: personalized learning. However, there is little agreement about what “personalized learning” means. In this article, we examine what personalized learning is in the corporate environment and how organizations can prepare to meet this new learning need.  

Everyday personalization

There are several ways to define the concept. It may mean:

  • Learning that is adaptive to each individual’s level of learning;
  • The delivery of targeted content to meet individual knowledge gaps based on assessment outcomes; or,
  • Identifying and directing individual learners to what they will need to know before they look for it on their own. 

Personalized learning may be all of these things. What they have in common is recognition that individuals are in control of their own learning. For example, suppose Sarah wants to learn a language; this is easy to arrange—there are countless websites and apps to help her. Or, if Mark is in the mood to cook or bake something that has a complicated recipe—he can search YouTube and he’s sure to find several home-made videos that will walk him through the steps. If a person completes enough searches around language and cooking, the next time that person begins a search for a related topic on YouTube or Google, what shows up in the search results will be determined in part by those previous searches; no two people will necessarily see the same choices in the same order.

The value of data capture and customer analytics is clear for Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, and YouTube. The more information they capture, the better they can help returning customers find, quickly and easily, what those customers want. This is personalization in our daily lives.  

Personalized learning will be the norm

Over the last decade, the Internet, social media, and mobile access have become huge factors in our private and working lives, changing how we interact with information. Now, with information available to us at the click of a mouse or keypad, we have come to expect immediate answers to recreational and job-related questions. This availability of information has allowed employees to be independent of HR training and IT departments.

One of the results of these changes is that learners today are taking control of their learning. Learning has become mobile and on demand. Learning knows no place or boundary; it can be on the go, in the office, at home, or anywhere. Learners can now “pull” the information they need, when they need it, shifting control from training departments to the learner. In addition, learners are beginning to have the expectation that the training department should provide content that is accessible and targeted directly to individual needs.

If Amazon can recommend which book a customer might like to read, and if Netflix can suggest what movie a customer would enjoy based on that person’s past choices, so the thinking goes, the learning organization should identify the specific content that will support employees’ learning for job performance success.

In response, two things need to happen. First, corporate learning needs to be able to predict individual learner requirements in order to support personalized learning. Second, organizations will need to curate information that learners may seek, and create an index of organizational knowledge assets. After collection and definition, the information is available for direct delivery to the learner, or the learner can access it through a search and find feature. 

Preparing the organization

A first step to personalized learning is to recognize the importance of continuous learning in the organization. To truly meet the needs of employees and to become an organization that supports and delivers personalized learning, it is necessary to create, build, and support a learning organization. A learning organization is one that:

  • Continually learns,
  • Supports the learning of its staff,
  • Listens to everyone and openly communicates, and
  • Embraces a philosophy of ongoing improvement.

Supporting personalized learning

If organizations are ready to respond to learners who want the ability to pull information and knowledge assets when they need them, there needs to be a culture and infrastructure in place to support this.

Once an organization recognizes the importance of learning, and accepts the shift from push to pull learning, the next step to building personalized learning is to collaborate with learners to understand their collective and individual needs.

Learner analytics

An organization ready to support and build personalized learning needs to begin collecting learning analytics. Learning analytics, similar to business intelligence and web analytics, uses analytical tools to collect information that the organization can use to improve learning, its development, and delivery. This new area of data collection will require working cross-functionally between IT and those responsible for learning and development. The information being sought is the interaction between the learner, their data output on social media or in learning communities, the information they search for, and their activity on educational tools – eLearning courses, webinars etc.

Experience API

As personalized learning integrates into the corporate space, learners will be able to collect and report on their own learning accomplishments using the Experience API, also called xAPI or Tin Can. Organizations and learners can use the Experience API to collect data outside of an LMS from any learning experience, completed in any environment, on any device. The Experience API captures completed actions and tasks. It does this by identifying who completed what action, and how it was completed. It focuses on the learner, what the learner did, and what he or she accomplished as a result. The functionality of the Experience API will help direct the focus and direction of personalized learning and will be a major data source for analyzing learners’ needs.

Contextualized content

The next step, in addition to identifying learners’ needs and knowledge gaps in order to deliver targeted content, is contextualizing learning content. Putting context around content ensures delivery of specific and targeted information delivered to learners for exactly what they want to know. Today, contextualizing learning goes beyond this fundamental requirement.  

Location-based learning supports contextualized content delivery. It is learning delivered to a mobile device with information directed to a specific need based on the learner’s location.

Another way to contextualize content is augmented reality learning. Webster’s Dictionary defines augmented reality as, “An enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (a smartphone camera).”

Augmented reality allows a learner to use a hand-held device to find context-specific information that helps them make connections and discoveries. Augmented reality is contextualized performance support driven by the learner.

Moving away from the LMS

A lot of corporations use learning management systems (LMSs). There are many types and variations, but looking closely at any of them shows they are more about managing learning than about the learning itself. Most current systems are about pushing information, courses, and schedules, and about tracking learner registration and course completion. This supports the learning department, but not the learner and the learning. If LMSs are to survive, they must adapt the way they capture and track learning, and how they support learners who want to find information.

Start-up companies are emerging in response to the needs of personalized learning. These companies are identifying how to tag content and track learner activity as a way to merge the two to deliver personalized content. Other companies recognize the importance of adaptive learning. Adaptive learning programs meet individual learner needs by creating learning paths based on learner assessment outcomes.  

Here are three companies that support personalized learning through adaptive learning and data collection of learner analytics. Each company takes a different approach.

Knewton presents itself as an adaptive learning platform. It partners with educational providers to support their adaptive and interactive course development. Through a three-step process—data collection, inference, and personalization—Knewton analyzes content and learners, which allows their partners to create the most effective learning materials.

aNewSpring is a complete on-line learning solution that allows developers to create adaptive learning courses. Based on learning objectives, it asks learners to complete specific activities. The results of these learning activities and progress toward meeting learning objectives determine the individual learning path.

Easygenerator provides cloud-based eLearning authoring software to create courses that adapt to learners’ progress based on assessment outcomes. Easygenerator’s approach to adaptive learning is around learner completion of pre-assessments to identify knowledge gaps. Based on assessment results, it directs learners to content to improve knowledge levels where there are gaps.


After examining personalized learning it becomes clear that it is the next step in how organizations must provide learning and performance support to staff. 

As the workforce changes, learners will demand this kind of learning. Everyone today, from Gen Y to Baby Boomers, is accustomed to getting immediate answers and responses on their mobile device to quickly verify what they’re thinking, or to find the answer to something they don’t know.

Personalized learning is becoming the norm, and in response learning organizations need to begin to prepare for it.  

The role of the organization will be to collect its intellectual property so that it’s available in tagged, micro-learning chunks that it can easily find and share across social networks. The future workplace must keep pace with the world we live in—which means identifying the right content for each individual and delivering it to them however they want it.

Want more information about personalized Learning?

From the Editor: If you are a member of The eLearning Guild, you can access additional ideas for delivering personalized learning in the handouts from these sessions at past conferences in the Conference Archive (requires log-in):

  • Dawn Poulos’ session 812 at Learning Solutions Conference & Expo 2013, “Leveraging the Cloud to Deliver Personalized Learning Experiences.”
  • Kelli Holmes’ session 304 at Performance Support Symposium 2013, “Using Personalization to Create Next-generation Performance Support.”
  • Mark Varey and Sean Wilson’s session 102 at DevLearn 2012, “Creating an Adaptive Content Deployment Strategy.”

In addition, the following sessions at the Learning Solutions Conference and Expo 2014 in Orlando March 19-21 may be of interest to you:

  • David Kelly and a panel of experts: Featured Session F3, “Redefining Training via Technology: Examples and Perspectives.”
  • Eri Kammerer: Session 102 “DIY: Introducing Self-directed Learning to Corporate Learners.”
  • Andy Whitaker: Session 308 “Blazing Trails with the Experience API (xAPI): Experiential Learning and Performance Support.”

These are just a few examples of the excellent value of Guild membership and of the outstanding content offered at conferences hosted by The eLearning Guild!