Even before artificial intelligence (AI) became a tool to tailor learning to the “needs of the learners,” personalization had been considered a universal remedy—granting success in learning. However, there is one aspect that many forget to consider: the context of work, the context of applying the knowledge and skills.
Just imagine! What inspires you most in your career journey? Probably it is the context you are supposed to work in. So, we as learning and development (L&D) professionals should strive to bring learners and the context of work as close together as possible—time-wise and location-wise. The cognitive theory also suggests that encoding of information is better and lasts longer when learning happens in the same (or similar) context in which knowledge and skills will be applied later.
Personalization means adjusting the learning path and content to the learner’s needs. Here we talk about three P's:
- Typical personalization is based on learner’s prior knowledge and skills, often determined by pre-assessments, by observing the behavior, or by talking to the learner. Many of these are determined through eLearning or workflow support tools, now assisted by AI.
- The second driver of personalization are learners’ preferences—normally defined by learners themselves, and thus subjective.
- The third element is the “learner profile,” often built by combining the prior two elements. Additionally, the profile is may be built based on the job role, learning “personas,” etc.
In general, every personalization focuses on individuals and their skills and preferences. The context is often neglected—or at least not considered enough. In addition to the individual and their characteristics, the context the person will be working in is critical to successful learning.
The Latin word context translates to “weave together.” When you contextualize learning, you focus on the environment where the job is performed, thus on the context of work. You relate the learning solution to it, you “weave together” the learning experience and the job environment. Successful contextualization thus requires a thorough understanding of the learner’s context.
When comparing personalization and contextualization, we see that the former requires solid data about the learner and a lot of adjustments, supported by digital tools. For contextualization, less data is needed: We only must know the context in which the learner will work. In most cases, we also need less technology. We can simply tailor the learning to the context of a group of participants, especially when such groups are coherent, like in internal organizational learning.
To truly increase the value of learning, we need to make sure the learners will not only “close the skills gap” but be able to apply what they have learned—to deploy their skills in the needed context. Often, the knowledge transfer fails because of switching between the context of learning and the context of application (work). That is why it is critical that learning happen as close to the context of application as possible.
Designing contextualized learning
Designing contextualized learning for an internal “coherent” audience is certainly easier compared to doing so for externally faced (generic) learning. The L&D team understands internal needs and organizational goals well; they are familiar with the business strategy, department policies, technology, the customers, and the portfolio, projects. L&D is a part of the context. However, even in the workplace environment, there are differences between learners, so, we may ask, why not personalization? Because a job environment is normally not personalized—it is rather agile, non-structured, non-formal in some parts, and full of interruptions and unpredictable situations. So, placing people into such a context during learning helps them find it familiar—it reflects their future reality.
Such colorful work environments must be reflected in the design of the respective learning solutions. A true contextual learning solution includes most of the components we normally see in learning—a true blend of them, from eLearning, through videos and webinars, to in-class training, whether self-paced, facilitated, or mentored. Such learning is tied to practical work on real cases from the learner’s context, augmented with a social component (from direct peer-help to communities of practice).
Bringing the class and the context closer together
When delivering contextualized learning, there are two general options:
- Bring the context into the class (or classroom). Examples include project-based (problem-based) learning, real-life case assignments, labs etc.
- Bring the class close to the context. Examples include running classes in the environment of work, combined with mentoring, on-the-job training, and similar solutions.
Irrespective of the option, there is an overarching social component that contributes to the success of learning. You can see how your peers apply their skills in the context! And skills can be varied, even in the same context. People do the same things in different ways!
By sharing these observations and thoughts, the learners enjoy a “cohesive experience,” comparable to their future job environment. Everyone finds value since what they learn seems relevant and the context looks familiar.
Contextual learning examples
Now let me illustrate contextual learning with some cases I was personally involved in.
First, here are examples of bringing the context into a class:
- My late friend, as a young boy, dreamed of becoming a pilot. While working in the fields, he tuned his air band radio to the local ATC and was thus practicing his listening skills. He brought the context into this very special “classroom.”
- Our company was running a cybersecurity scholarship program for a major customer, with over a thousand young graduates. We invited experts from the Security Operations Center (SOC), the future environment of the students, to share their experience. Students had an opportunity to talk to the director and to security analysts and watch live demonstrations. We brought the context into this large class.
- In our company, we run a reskilling program for network engineers to learn coding skills. The program is mentored, it is run basically from the job environment, and the projects that participants work on are real business cases. The context is, literally, in the “class.” The impact of learning is augmented through discussions with peers and mentors, strengthening the social bond in the work environment.
Now let’s look at some cases of bringing the class into the context:
- We ran a Network Operations Center (NOC) boot camp for a large customer. They decided to use the classrooms located next to the center. The students were able to see the center itself through the glass doors of the classrooms, and they felt like they were sitting in the NOC. During the breaks they met their future colleagues and some of their mentors in the hallway. In the afternoon, they participated in a shadowing program in the NOC itself. So, the class was truly brought into the context of their future work.
- Our company typically hires people through young student programs. Our summer schools and similar programs engage students to work on real projects, to assist our employees part-time, and we also offer them opportunities to visit our customers. With that, the students see their future environment and their future customers.
Variations in prior knowledge and skills
The examples share cases of connecting the learning and application environments, the class and the context, bringing them as close together as possible. The common denominator of the participants—the students—was the context. But there are naturally differences in personalities, and especially in prior knowledge and skills. How do we address these?
The answer is always about some extra study: maybe pre-reading a book, watching a video, providing participants with study references—but, first and foremost, there must be a support channel, open even before the class starts, that brings learners and the mentors together. In this forum, discussions start, revolving around the context, the work, the topic. Such channels offer the participants a sort of “personalization on-demand,” since they can ask the questions that are relevant for them. Such an environment stimulates social learning and strengthens the bonds between the learners and their (future) coworkers.
- When we can’t personalize learning solutions for various reasons (e.g., the lack of systems, data …), we can enhance them by connecting the person to the context of their work—current or future. Contextualization is adjusting the learning solution to the context of the learners. Ideally, this works best when the audience is coherent—from the same environment or organization.
- People remember and apply the knowledge and skills best when learning and application happen close together—both in time and location. Contextualization also means that learning should happen “in-the-flow-of-work”—or close to it.
- As in every work environment, social bonds play an essential role in improving job performance; this is equally true when people learn in the context. Learners help one another, they provide feedback to each other—and, first and foremost, they find themselves in a familiar context.