Much of the buzz surrounding AI tools and their potential to transform L&D centers on their ability to deliver personalized learning.

A second trend in L&D circles is a focus on social or collaborative learning; whether in cohorts or using online collaboration tools, the goal of getting learners to share their knowledge and collaborate on projects is gaining traction.

How do these seemingly contradictory trends co-exist?

The simple answer is that each approach is the best choice for some kinds of learning or problem-solving—and a poor choice for other types of learning. Rather than being contradictory, these trends complement one another, and learning leaders’ strategy should include a mix of these and other approaches.

Personalized learning

The great promise of personalized learning is highly individually focused: It will deliver the right learning to each learner at the time the learner needs it and in a way that works for that learner.

That covers a whole lot of territory! The “best” way to deliver learning requires that we consider:

  • Medium—Text, video, audio, immersive
  • Delivery method—Synchronous or asynchronous; in-person or virtual; dedicated training / learning time or “in the workflow”
  • Depth—Microlearning, in-depth course; learning path with multiple courses or units

To complicate matters, the “best” way to deliver learning varies not only by learners’ preferences and environments, but also by content. Some content lends itself better to video, for example, or to branching scenarios, than to text or microlearning. And vice versa, of course.

Personalization also, critically, considers each individual learner’s existing knowledge and strengths and weaknesses. That’s why emerging AI tools are such a game-changer. With the help of an AI engine, it’s much easier to figure out which content a learner already knows and which they need more practice with—and to deliver only the relevant content to each learner.

This is a significant departure from old-school attempts to ensure that everything necessary is covered by delivering a fire hose of information to everyone. While being thorough, the huge amount of content also ensured that nearly everyone got content that would not be relevant to them, a surefire way to demotivate learners. An increase in personalization and, as a consequence, the delivery of more relevant and focused content, can improve motivation and engagement—likely leading to better performance.

What to watch for

Automated personalization might be ideal for many types of learning content, especially fact-based content or processes. But some content areas, particularly skills around interacting with colleagues or direct reports, may need a more human touch. When teaching people to provide feedback, deliver bad news, resolve conflict, or address inequities, practicing the same scenarios multiple times is not enough to build the needed skills.

Ensuring that all learners get the content and practice they need requires balancing individualized learning, perhaps including automated personalized learning, with other approaches.

Social & collaborative learning

The descriptor “social and collaborative” learning is a broad umbrella. Collaborative learning—working together—would happen in projects or tasks that focus on learning, according to Mark Britz, author of Social by Design and the Learning Guild’s director of event programming. Britz sees collaborative learning as a subset of social learning that “would appear to be more conscious or deliberate,” whereas social learning can happen informally and organically.

Social learning enables problem-solving and can boost connections and build skills. For social learning and collaboration to thrive, organizations need to create an open, transparent, and conducive environment. This includes creating space for interaction and learning, both online and in person, and showing by example that learning, sharing, and open discussion are not merely acceptable but welcomed and encouraged.

It also means, according to Britz, “transferring ownership of learning to the individual and encouraging people’s instinctive ability to connect, collaborate, and share knowledge.”

Collaborative learning brings inherent benefits, regardless of the project or task, especially for employees who are working remotely. The practice of working with, consulting, discussing, and resolving challenges with colleagues will provide real-life practice in communicating and problem-solving, even if they are collaborating on projects that have nothing to do with communication.

What to watch for

Like personalized learning, collaborative projects and social learning will not be the best solution to all learning and training needs. Learning leaders need to find the right topics and situations for collaborative and social learning, and balance these with individual learning—just as they need to balance personalized learning with more general training that applies to all people in the same job role, or to members of a group, such as managers in a leadership development cohort.

A mix of methods

An aspiring leader could, for example, practice the basics of providing feedback using personalized scenario-based or immersive training, an environment where failure may feel safe. They might then receive coaching on areas where they needed work. They could gain further practice and opportunities to hone those skills while working collaboratively with members of their leadership training cohort, under the guidance of senior leaders.

Personalized learning and social or collaborative learning are far from the only options, of course. But as formats that are getting a lot of attention now, these are strategies learning leaders might want to consider adding to their mix of resources and training approaches. Trending or not, matching learning approach with the content, goals, and learners’ needs and environment is at the heart of a solid learning strategy.