ATD Blog

What Do You Know: Is Personalized Learning the Answer?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

We often hear that the Internet “democratizes” learning because people can initiate and guide their own learning. Some organizational learning professionals say workers with access to multiple, networked resources can use these resources to keep up with the increasingly difficult demands of changing job information and skills. 

People label this personalized learning, because personalizing what you learn and when you learn are increasingly available via ubiquitous computing (smartphones, tablets, and computers) and increasingly available internet access. Before we consider personalized learning in a bit more depth, let’s start with a question. Pick what you consider to be the best answer. The “correct” answer isn’t the point. The point is to think about what you know and believe before we jump in. 

Is personalized learning via available computing devices and internet access one of the principal answers to continually changing job information and skill needs?

A. No. Personalized learning is yet another buzz phrase that sounds good but doesn’t mesh with what we know about learning. 

B. It depends. Personalized learning can be extremely helpful in some situations but it cannot meet all organizational learning needs. 

C. Yes. When people have the devices and Internet access, they can initiate and guide their own learning and therefore answer their own learning needs. 

Let’s consider a few real-life organizational learning situations.  

Situation 1: Organization Q updates their inventory ordering and tracking system on a schedule so departments (such as purchasing, sales, and the warehouse) can prepare for updates. The changes coming next month, however, are a massive overhaul and include integration with the customer order and shipping system. 

Situation 2: Organization Q’s IT professionals need to keep on top of changes and updates in their area of specialty in order to make sure the organization stays on top of IT challenges. 

According to Benjamin Riley founder and executive director of Deans for Impact and an educational researcher, personalized learning as described contain two problematic assumptions: 

  1. People learn more when they have power over what they learn.
  2. People learn more when they have power over when they learn.

Assumption 1: People Learn More When They Have Power Over What They Learn 

This assumption is problematic, says Riley, because prior knowledge (what you already know) is the foundation for further learning (Science of Learning 101: Why You Need to Know What Your Learners Know). People with inadequate prior knowledge have a harder time teaching themselves what they need to know. They have a difficult time figuring out what is important and what isn’t, determining the accuracy of the material, and making sense of conflicting information, for example. As Dr. K. Anders Ericsson explains in discussing expertise, experts tend to know more efficient paths to expertise. They can tell us: This type of practice is will be helpful. These books are valuable. This is one of the reasons good mentoring and teaching is so incredibly valuable.

In the Situation 1 example, people who weren’t new to the company previously learned the new updates without training via an update sheet with each update that detailed the two to six changes. The emerging update changes the entire system and integrates two previously separate systems. A variety of training methods and performance support will likely be needed for the major overhaul and the science of learning shows the best ways: comparisons of old and new processes, scenarios, social support, training just before going live, etc. 

The Situation 2 example is quite different. Experienced professionals are more able to figure out how to keep up in their area of specialty than people learning something completely new. (Some chose not to, but that’s another issue.) People with more expertise have more prior knowledge, better understand how the topic is organized, and can more easily tell what is important, accurate, and so on, among other things. They are therefore better able to select what to use to learn. 

Assumption 2: People Learn More When They Have Power Over When They Learn 

This assumption is equally problematic but that isn’t as obvious. Riley tells us that most learning is hard, but our brains are wired to be lazy. (True!) When making decisions, we often pick the first thing that makes sense (and then wonder why we didn’t give things more thought when we are unhappy later). We allow our mind’s autopoilot to take over when we drive and sometimes don’t remember how we got where we drove to. This is one of the reasons why our chosen methods for learning are in conflict with the best ways to learn. 

Riley tells us it’s best to not simply allow people to decide when to learn because many will simply put it off. Riley says the answer to the question is mostly A. I say it’s somewhere between A and B, depending on expertise level and motivation of the people you are dealing with. 


We should determine what levels of expertise are needed for certain levels of a job and provide support for people to achieve those levels. The help needed will be different at different expertise and job levels. As people become more expert, we offer additional choices because they can handle it. But we still provide support because of the reasons discussed. 

Assumption 3: Adults Have the Need to Be Autonomous 

We realize that assumptions 1 and 2 don’t work as well as we would hope, although people with more expertise (and more motivation) tend to take charge of their own learning path and time. And let’s not forget that people are choosing what to learn and when to learn without our help. But as I have said in previous posts, they may not get to the level of desired expertise without some additional support. But adults also have essential needs for control over their own lives and that includes work. I believe the best of the best organizations are able to find where organizational needs and individual needs interconnect to bring out the best. I will write more about this as I think this research helps us design organizations where people can thrive. If you are like me, and have seen unhealthy organizations controlled by unhealthy power and control, you know this doesn’t produce good results. 


Center on Educational Policy. What is motivation and why does it matter? 

Riley, B. (June 20, 2014). Don’t personalize learning.  

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

About the Author

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of TheOnline Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor forOnline Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.

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