Reinventing The Modern Learning Experience

While it may seem counter-intuitive, what happens in cyberspace outside the classroom actually may be the key to a more engaging, personalized classroom experience that breaks out of the “one-size-fits-all” approach.

The competition has never been so fierce. Right now, all of us in the training industry are fighting for one of the most precious resources on Earth: People’s attention.

We are up against heavy workloads, a constant stream of e-mail, demanding meetings, and the relentless beckoning of smartphones, not to mention the everyday strains of personal lives. In the cracks between these colossal demands is the space for everything else—including training and development.

The companies that are succeeding at grabbing attention in these cracks of time are the ones that don’t waste any time getting people to what they want and need. Amazon and Netflix suggest products and entertainment based on what they’ve learned about your personal habits and preferences, eliminating the need to waste time searching around for what you want. Likewise, subscription services such as StitchFix and Dollar Shave Club have exploded as people expect to be delighted with automated, personalized products that cut down on errand runs.

As we reinvent the modern learning experience, it’s imperative that we keep these pressures in mind. Learners have little time or patience for an experience that doesn’t maximize the value they get for their time and effort.


Much has been written about what the modern learner needs. Across the many blogs, articles, podcasts, infographics, and white papers, a common set of characteristics, needs, and expectations appear, and a consistent set of criteria emerge that paint the picture of what the modern learner wants: training that is mobile, relevant, easy to access, quick to consume, and collaborative.

No surprises there. However, a recent study does introduce some surprising findings. The 2018 Global Leadership Forecast (, published by DDI, The Conference Board, and EY, revealed some surprising insights about what learners really want. First surprise: There is high consistency across the various generations in the workplace in terms of how they prefer to learn.

Surprise No. 2: Leaders, including Millennials, still have a strong preference for formal training. More than 25,000 leaders around the world said the learning methods they prefer most include, in this order: personalized learning experiences; coaching from external mentors; and formal workshops, training courses, and seminars.

Among these top learning methods, notice that technology does not play a prominent role. The research showed that technology couldn’t replace the human element of learning, but did play a critical role as an accelerator. Technology shines when it’s being used to “learn about the learner,” and deliver a more personalized experience. Some of the ways technology works to do that is to employ assessments that identify the learner’s individual strengths and skill gaps, then recommend appropriate development resources based on the results. Advanced platforms also take into account the whole person, and reflect the individual’s experiences, professional goals, and interests. Only in this way can we provide the personalized learning experiences learners crave, much like what they get from Netflix or Amazon.


Recognizing the importance of connectivity and hyper-collaboration in this digital era, many platforms also offer social collaboration and networking options. Intended to satisfy our desire for social interaction when we learn, there are few success stories that involve using social features that haven’t consumed precious hours of the Training manager’s time. In our research, social network-based learning ranked low on learners’ list of desires. Rather, they view the online platform as an individual learning space where they can pursue learning anytime, anywhere, from any device.

The question is how does this concept of personalization come into play in the highly social environment of the classroom, which we know learners still deeply desire? While it may seem counter- intuitive, what happens in cyberspace outside the classroom actually may be the key to a more engaging, personalized classroom experience that breaks out of the “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Picture a classroom experience that begins before the door opens instead of after it’s closed. Before learners ever step foot in the classroom, they can take either formal or informal assessments that provide insights into what they may want and need to get out of the class. Armed with these self-insights, imagine asking learners to choose where to sit based on the skill or skills they want or need to focus on, rather than plopping into the seat furthest from the front of the room or closest to their buddy. Throughout the session, learners can be paired with others who want to work on the same skills, or share tips and best practices with those who have complementary skills.

You might even be brave enough to encourage learners to bring their device of choice into the classroom and use it as a tool, instead of treating smartphones and laptops as distractions that should be abandoned at the doorstep. Facilitators can gather and leverage insights about the group’s strengths and gaps (more personalization) with a few quick but targeted polling questions, easy to do with free polling software and learners’ smartphones at hand.

Instead of all participants experiencing the same activities at the same time, consider learning stations with a variety of approaches that individuals select based on their development needs or learning preference. For example, I might choose to watch a positive model video to pick up a few pointers. If I didn’t get enough of the concepts before the session, I might start with a quick online content review (easy to do because I have my smartphone with me). Or I might prefer to dive right in and role-play a real workplace situation with a partner who has guidelines for providing meaningful feedback. This is personalization—with a purpose— because the insights I gained before the session are guiding my choices.

In this environment, intensified dialogue and deeper reflection will flourish. While the online social feature can feel forced and require a lot of time and effort, nothing could be further from the truth when learners come together in the classroom. We are wired for conversations— one of the most effective learning tools we have at our fingertips. Those conversations are even more powerful and purposeful when fueled by insights and data, and shared with a carefully chosen partner who can provide valuable feedback.


Both online and offline, the personalized learning experience is the modern learning experience. And the payoff will be clear: Our Global Leadership Forecast showed that companies that moderately or heavily use personalized learning are 3.2 times more likely to outperform their peers on leadership bench strength, and 2.9 times more likely to outperform their peers in current leader quality. In the war for time and attention, this approach is not “nice to have”—it’s a “must have” that creates your competitive edge.

Janice Burns is vice president, Global Practices at global leadership company DDI. She works with organizations around the world to achieve business results by building stronger leaders. She presents on a variety of development topics, including the design and implementation of learning journeys and blended learning best practices.

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