Group of learner's with different thinking preferences need personalized learning

Effective Personalized Learning for the Masses: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

In today’s always-on, always-connected world, learning has no boundaries. It might happen through group discussions on a messaging app like Slack, or via a how-to video on YouTube, or by competing against people from around the world on a gamification app accessed from a smartphone or tablet.

Between mobile devices, social media, MOOCs, real-time messaging apps and more, learners are becoming accustomed to taking control of their own development and choosing the options that appeal to them. Particularly for Millennials and younger generations entering the workforce, this kind of self-directed approach is what they know and what they expect.

But as more employees are looking for ways to personalize and direct their own learning, L&D professionals are struggling with how best to facilitate it. For one thing, the systems have been slow to keep up, so just the thought of tracking and managing personalized learning for a population of any significant size can be overwhelming.

The issues go beyond technology and logistics, though. While curating content is becoming an important L&D responsibility, if you’re a learning professional, you know that providing access to information isn’t the same thing as developing and growing people.

You also know that just because your learners have access to an on-demand webinar or a micro-chunk of learning content, it doesn't mean that they or the business are necessarily getting any value out of it.

The question is, are we stuck with a kind of “Wild West” of options and experiences when it comes to personalized learning? Or should we pull in the reigns?

Why Personalize Learning?

Access and availability have made informal, self-directed learning more possible, and we know that most employees are doing it in one way or another whether it’s officially sanctioned or not. One reason it continues to grow in popularity is that this approach allows learners to ask for what they need and better tailor the experience to fit their unique learning styles.

Each one of us as a learner is a unique human being with a unique learning style. Consider your own experience: you likely did much better in some subjects than others, responded better to some teaching methods than others, and retained some material more accurately and for a longer period of time than other material delivered in a different way. Your unique learning style is the result of the brain you were born with, combined with the years of experience that have developed into your own distinctive learning approaches over the course of your life.

In fact, many traditional learning programs—whether online or in the classroom—have failed because they weren’t positioned to meet the learning style needs of their target population.

We know from our research that with any population of a significant size, you’ll find that the full spectrum of thinking and learning styles are represented. As you curate content and determine what to make available, particularly for those learning points that are absolutely essential, your best approach is to create a Whole Brain® learning experience by offering a tapestry of methods that appeal to all thinking and learning preferences.

Model representing how people with different thinking preferences might learn bestThe Whole Brain® Learning Considerations model shows how different thinkers and learners learn best.

Personalizing for Stretch

Carol Dweck’s research found that people who believe their brains can be “built” like a muscle will learn more effectively, so a learning mindset is critical for achieving engagement and outcomes. The effective positioning and application of learning styles can help instill that growth-oriented learning mindset. But first, learners must understand and believe they can stretch their personal preferences and not get boxed in by their style or use it as an excuse to disengage.

Learning isn’t always comfortable. In order to stretch and grow, your learners need to build those muscles and be willing to move outside their personal comfort zones. Self-directed learning programs still need to be designed to create challenge.

One example of how to incorporate stretch into personalized learning is the work we did with a university on the design of its universal minor in innovation. Students are given access to a whole suite of tools, activities and challenges that run the gamut of thinking and learning styles. At times, they can self-select according to their preference. But there are also specific assignments requiring them to work outside their comfort zones and use tools they wouldn’t typically gravitate towards.

Particularly for your high-potentials and emerging leaders, this kind of cross-training for the brain is essential. But design with intention and awareness of the mental burden involved. You want to keep them challenged, engaged and motivated, not burn them out.

Put It Together in the Context of Your Learning Environment

It’s easy to get caught up in all the options, technology and content now available. But if it’s not serving the most important of your objectives, it’s not adding value.

Think about what will best serve your design, your audience and your organization—within its constraints. Keep it simple and always, always keep the brain in mind. You are, after all, a learner yourself. Put together a whole-brained team to help you evaluate your options and think this through. Then do a reality check.

Ask yourself and your team:

A. What are our objectives—for the learners, for our team and for the business? Does the technology add value? Have we tested it? What will we track to measure success?

B. What guidelines do we need to have in place? How will it work? What are the security or other implications?

C. Who is our audience? How well does this respond to their needs? Are we helping them create successful learning paths and experiences vs. providing a repository of information?

D. What’s our overall vision for self-directed, personalized learning? How can we challenge ourselves to look at learning design and delivery in new ways?

Personalized learning can be delivered at scale. To get the flexibility, speed, learning and outcomes you and your employees need, start by educating all learners about their learning and thinking styles, demonstrating that each has the ability to think and learn beyond their individual preferences. Only then can the participant “own” their learning objectives, take responsibility for their success and get the support to grow.

Now you're ready to learn more about the learner's brain. Register for Ann Herrmann-Nehdi's webinar to take the next step toward training greatness!

Click here to register for the 4 Secrets of the Learner's Brain webinar

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