Is Personalized, Adaptive Learning Right for Your Company?

The ability to be directed only toward the training you need, and to take that training on a platform responsive enough to adapt to your needs as you answer each question, sounds like a training dream. Or, at least it sounds like a training dream from an employee perspective.

The vision of this learning and development dream (hopefully not a mirage) came to me today while reading a column in Forbes by Edmund Ingham: “Staff Training Techniques Are Changing Thanks To Adaptive Learning and Personalization.”

The training scenario Ingham describes reminds me of a much more advanced version of what I experienced 17 years ago when I took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Even back then, the online test I took was responsive. Your answer to each question would determine the next question presented to you. So, if you answered a question correctly, then a more advanced question would be asked next, and if you answered incorrectly, a question at the same level, or a less advanced question, would be asked next. I may be mistaken, but that’s how I remember the technology behind the exam explained to me all those years ago.

That technology is much more refined now, so that companies, and anyone else seeking to teach, can use data on each learner and each job—not just the answer to a previous question—to determine the best training package for each individual. And yet, despite the availability of this technology, it seems like most companies are not using it. Am I wrong about that? From what I’ve gathered anecdotally, it appears that training online is the same in spirit to training in the classroom, the only difference being that it’s taken on a computer rather than with a paper and pen. The most exciting promises of computer-based learning haven’t been realized.

One of the interesting points shared in Ingham’s column is that as much as 80 percent of the learning delivered to corporate employees may be useless. That means that many employees are sitting through countless hours just for a measly 20 percent of content that will make a difference to their job performance. That’s not only a waste of their time; it’s a waste of the company’s time, and it creates a resentful, bored workforce.

In addition to using data about each employee and each job role, adaptive, personalized learning technology has the ability to present learning in different formats depending on what the individual’s performance tells the technology about his or her preferred learning style. So maybe one employee will be tracked by the technology as doing better when the information is presented in audio form with more interactive exercises, whereas another employee does well with written information and more challenging questions rather than interaction.

The possibilities are endless in how people learn, and how a technological platform could adapt to suit each individual’s needs. It sounds unfair, but from a practical, realistic standpoint, why should one employee who is able to simply read a few pages and grasp the material be put through a series of interactive exercises with audio when her performance on the assessment, and on her job, shows she doesn’t need it? However, her co-worker may require both the audio and the written text, along with the interactive exercises, to excel. Delivering not just the right content and the right format, but the right amount of training to each individual also is essential. You risk some employees becoming resentful of other employees for not having to take the time to complete as many exercises, but if the amount of training required of each employee is based on an objective, responsive technology, rather than a manager’s judgment, that’s life. It’s no different than the curriculum required of new students in college based on the assessments you’re given before freshman year begins. Some of us could “CLEP” a year of language or a year of basic math if the test showed that we had already mastered those skills. Why shouldn’t the same kind of assessment, and a personalized curriculum level, be available to corporate employees?

Speaking of college, another great thing about some of the personalized, adaptive technology now available is it allows employees to “major” in an area of interest related to their jobs. So a person like me in writing and editing could take a course on a particular kind of feature writing, or investigative journalism, and then show through exercises and tailored assignments, tracked through the online learning platform, that I had gained at least a beginner’s competency in those skills and was ready for a new assignment. The technology’s tracking of an employee’s performance in his or her “major” would give managers and Human Resources an objective measurement of whether he or she now is ready for a growth or “stretch” assignment. Just as importantly, the ability to choose a major in the training received from a company creates employees who are more engaged. They’re more engaged because they’re at least partially self-directing their learning, and know they’re not being given a one-size-fits-all training plan.

Is your company likely to try personalized, adaptive learning systems in the next few years? Have you already implemented this highly individualized learning technology? What are the challenges and rewards for trying it?

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