Personalized learning

Personalization is important

Did you ever read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People? Written in 1937, and still in print 15,000,000 copies later, How to… was the first people-skills book. “Deal with people so that they feel important and appreciated” is Carnegie’s timeless formula. “*Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

I contend that much of what passes for eLearning would benefit mightily from Carnegie’s advice.

Fifty years after Carnegie, Stan Davis coined the term mass customization to describe the ability to provide individualized services and goods with the efficiency of mass production. Mass customization was supposed to be one of the foundations of eLearning, but somehow it slipped through the cracks as vendors raced for quick fixes and quarterly revenue.

Up the revolution

Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, I think first-generation eLearning ran off the tracks because investors thought the learning revolution would be a repeat of the industrial revolution. What VC wouldn’t fight for a piece of that action?

The industrial revolution succeeded because of the specialization of labor and the substitution of machines for labor; it took most of the people out of the equation. eLearning attempted to do the same thing. In the early days, eLearning was justified by the savings in instructor salaries and airplane tickets when learning migrated from the classroom to the desktop.

Of course, people aren’t bales of cotton and learning is social, so most of the early eLearning programs went down in flames.

Come into my store

Imagine if I operated a store that treated customers the way early eLearning treats learners. You bought an expensive item last week and come back into the store. No one acknowledges you or says hello. No one calls you by name. They’re already forgotten you were here before. They have no memory of your purchase. There isn’t much merchandise on the shelves and you’re not allowed to try anything on before you buy it. We never follow up. You want a personal shopper? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. That’s a good one.

Most eLearning is like this. Is it any wonder people don’t buy it?

Drop outs?

Lance Dublin and I interviewed dozens of companies while researching our book, Implementing eLearning. Why were so many people dropping out of eLearning? They told us:

  1. It was irrelvant to their jobs.
  2. They already knew the material.
  3. They hit roadblocks and had no one to turn to.
  4. The material was dull as dishwater.

If eLearning were personalized, these irritants would evaporate. (Well, perhaps not #4.)

Even my online bookstore remembers who I am and suggests new things for me to look at based on my previous selections and those of people like me. It’s always learning how to serve me better. It lets me go at my own pace, providing lots of directions so I’ll stay interested. I’ve yet to see an LMS that learns as well as Amazon does.

What others think

71 people responded to a short poll about the value of personalized learning. I’ll provide a summary here; I’ve posted the details on the web.

  1. Most respondents say personalization makes a difference or is very important. (But only 7% rate their own efforts better than so-so.)

  2. A solid majority think it important to avoid redundancy by automatically skipping over material the learner has already mastered. (But only half do it.)

  3. More than 90% think it’s important for learners to be able to annotate and highlight materials and “dogear” virtual pages. (But only 27% have implemented it.)

  4. Four out of five think it’s important for learners to be able to share notes, annotations, and content with other learners. (But only one in five do so.)

  5. Everyone thinks it important to tailor learning to the learner’s job requirement and competencies. (And 38% do it.)

  6. Everyone thinks collaboration with peers is important. (And 42% do it.)

  7. Most people deem it important to have a live mentor or learning coach to asnwer questions and help learners over rough spots. (But less than half do it.)

The bottom line

Most people think personalized learning is important. Less than half do anything about it. I sense lots of unrealized potential to be gained by “dealing with learners so that they will feel important and appreciated.”

Posted by Jay Cross at September 6, 2003 02:07 PM | TrackBack

Hi Jay...nice thoughts. You're very quotable! Like the store analogy.

Posted by: gsiemens at September 8, 2003 09:19 AM

I like the industrial metaphor. This personalization graphic really seems to illustrate what you're talking about. To cynically show the effects of the current system, you could reverse the direction of the assembly line -- making the "product" standardized and less interesting than the raw materials.


Posted by: Jeremy at September 8, 2003 05:12 PM

Hi, Jay: Do I ever agree!! As you will remember, my original company, [email protected], was focused on Mass Customization and Personalization of Learning! But, we couldn't convince folks that efficacy was enough of a need to invest. However, at least my current company, Extempo, fulfills a portion of the goals, and certainly forcefully addresses much of the lack of personalization you lament, as well as providing authentic mentoring and coaching. Thanks for your thoughts, and the survey.


Posted by: Dave Whipple at September 10, 2003 02:30 PM

I want to write a thesis about analyzing characteristics of personalized learning ,for example,some details about learners' learning style, hobby, needs to support personalized learning.

Posted by: jammy at May 1, 2004 09:07 PM

I want to write a thesis about analyzing characteristics of personalized learning ,for example,some details about learners' learning style, hobby, needs to support personalized learning.

Posted by: jammy at May 1, 2004 09:07 PM


In general I agree with your position. But knowing about a learner is not just knowing about his/her taste and preferences. Here is where the analogy to AMAZON does not fit any longer and may even be misleading.
A learning management system should know what the learner knows. One could use essay (written by the learner) or standardized pre-tests (e.g. MC-tests) to elicit the learner's prior knowledge.
Then it should be possible to find the learning object which best suits his / her information needs (and prior knowledge). There is much work to do for such systems (e.g. deep semantic analysis of the essay and the learning unit(s) to compare them), but much of this work in under way


Posted by: Lothar at June 17, 2004 01:52 AM

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