What is personalized learning?

Pamela S. Hogle
Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
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Two buzzwords that pop up often in discussions of eLearning tools and approaches are personalized learning and adaptive training.

Many people think they are interchangeable — but that’s far from the truth. Both are about the learner experience, true. But they touch on very different aspects of that experience:

  • Adaptive training is focused on each individual learner’s specific content needs.
  • Personalized learning is a bigger-picture approach that personalizes the learner experience without affecting the learning content.

Netflix does both personalization and adaptive delivery.

The red Netflix logo on a black background.

Another way to look at personalized versus adaptive learning is to examine how Netflix handles these approaches.

Netflix offers a personalized experience

With Netflix, you can watch any content you want, as long as it’s part of the vast Netflix library. You can watch it any time you want. You can watch it on your tablet or your laptop or the TV in your bedroom, your living room, or your RV. You can show closed captions or listen to audio description — or not. You can turn on auto-play so that when an episode of a series is over, the next one starts automatically. 

Netflix will look at the content you’ve watched and use its personalized recommendation algorithm to predict and suggest additional content you might like. But when you choose a show to watch, the content of that show is the same for you as it is for every other viewer watching that show — with a few notable exceptions, described below.

Your Netflix experience is personalized. You control many of the big-picture aspects of it. But the personalization features do not change the content itself, only the experience of viewing it. 

Similarly, personalized learning allows the learner to customize aspects of the experience, but not to control the makeup of the actual content that is delivered.

Adaptive content on Netflix

What if you could influence the content itself? 

In adaptive learning systems, algorithms pull content from a library that is available to all learners, but the content each learner sees is tailored to them. 

With the movie Bandersnatch (and a handful of other titles), Netflix offered a similar experience. Like “choose-your-own-adventure” books, the movie has several stopping points where viewers make a decision about what the main character should do next. Their choices determine what content they see — every viewer gets a uniquely adapted movie. 

Adaptive training also delivers a unique selection of content to each learner. But rather than strictly basing the content mix on learners’ choices, adaptive training algorithms target content delivery based on the individual learner’s progress and performance. (Explore adaptive training more deeply in “What is Adaptive Training?” and “How Is eLearning Like the Company T-shirt?”)

Personalized learning is all about LX

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With a personalized learning approach, you enable learners to control their experience. Providing options results in a positive learner experience, or LX, which boosts engagement and can lead to better training results, so adopting personalization strategies can pay off. There are several ways to personalize learning that don’t require an enormous investment of time or resources, such as:

Enabling each learner to construct a unique learning path or curriculum

While not adapting the specific content of any course to the learner, enabling individual learning paths makes it possible for each learner — and their manager, perhaps — to plan a list of courses and other content that meet their individual needs, rather than following a predetermined curriculum that includes courses that are not of interest or are irrelevant to the learner’s job role or goals.

Ensuring that eLearning is mobile-friendly and available on demand

This allows learners to choose when and where to learn.

Offering content in multiple formats

This could mean presenting short videos along with eLearning courses; providing extensive graphics, including charts and infographics, with text-heavy content; or offering podcasts, games, and flashcard-style apps in addition to conventional eLearning. A “multimodal” approach to learning has proven to be more effective, especially when learners consume content on a topic in more than one format.

Find the intersection of personalization and adaptive learning

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Personalized learning experiences and adaptive training content share the goals of meeting learners’ needs, increasing their knowledge and ability, and improving their job performance. Both recognize and treat learners as individuals with varied interests, preferences, circumstances, and prior knowledge. And both target modern digital learners who are busy, who don’t want to waste time on irrelevant content, and who are accustomed to using their mobile devices to access information on demand.

Using flexible, modern eLearning platforms and tools, it’s possible to deliver a learner experience that’s both personalized and adaptive. Find the intersection of personalized and adaptive learning in your eLearning strategy — and watch engagement and results soar.

Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
Pamela S. Hogle

An experienced writer, editor, tech writer, and blogger, Pam helps you make sense of learning science and eLearning technology. She provides information you can use to drive improvements in your training effectiveness and ROI.

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