What Is Personalized Learning? How to Plan Using this Model

With all the buzz around personalized learning in the Learning & Development (L&D) community, it’s no wonder many newcomers to the conversation feel the term is defined a little vaguely. That’s a side effect of any idea being widely adopted, though.

As more and more approaches to personalized learning experiences get developed, a range of ethos positions concerning the type of content and speed of learning are bound to emerge.

Unfortunately, the efficiency-driven side of the conversation can give off the impression that personalized content is about building to suit each user role and situation, delivering just what learners need and avoiding generalities. While that is one approach, it’s far from the core definition of the term. In this article, we explain what personalized learning is and how to use it in your learning management system (LMS).

What Is Personalized Learning and Why Is It Important?

The term itself refers to the process of creating a unique learning journey for each user in the system, with content designed to be served according to individual needs and goals.

Whether the approach is applied through online learning or in-seat classroom settings, the goal of these models for education is to provide support for diverse learning styles by giving each individual student the chance to find a path through the material that works.

Brick-and-mortar approaches that approximate this include Montessori teaching, which has a defined set of learning objectives for each class while allowing students to pursue those objectives in an individual way.

Online, this can be done with a responsive content design that provides learning objects that match the learner’s goals, supporting the success of every participant without forcing any onto a rigid path, which is why it has become so important.

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A Brief History of Personalized Learning and its Effect on Education

In its current form, the movement toward personalized education started around 2009 and has formed into a couple of major factions.

Most of their divisions are regarding the philosophical approach to designing curriculum. That's hardly where the core concepts started, though. The Montessori system and other methods of designing K-12 classrooms for face-to-face learning have used the core components of personalized course design for decades, and the conversation around today's personalized learning models depends heavily on the progress made by those movements.

Each iteration of the push for education that is individually suited to a student's cognitive style and strengths has had a profound effect on the educators outside the movement because the most useful ideas wind up being transplanted into traditional educational environments.

One big example is the open-ended presentation project, which lets students balance oral, visual design, and writing skills to suit their personal talents.

How Personalized Learning Works

This approach to customizing course content is not the only one, so personalized models should not be viewed as interchangeable with non-linear or customized content.

Student-directed progression and competency-based learning both use customized content as well. Every attempt to coherently define personalized learning comes down to a pair of components, the learner profile and the custom path through content.

There are other elements common to many approaches, but just the following two are universal ones.

Step #1: Learner Profiles

In K-12 settings, learner profiles are often developed over time by the direct observation of teachers and aides in addition to the student’s evaluations and assessment scores. In most corporate L&D programs, this is defined by user role and department. When users sign in, they see available courses and can sign into them.

Courses themselves vary according to the role of the user taking them as well, adding content for those whose roles demand it. Completed training modules are tracked, so learners who finish introductory training can deepen their skills in a role-appropriate way.

Higher education can learn from both approaches by adopting the most successful tactics of each, blending the professional approach from L&D with the developmental approach from primary and secondary education systems to achieve a well-rounded approach to advanced adult education within this system.

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Step #2: Custom paths

Learner profiles that note masteries, proficiencies, and areas of improvement are only half of the design.

The other half is the custom path through the material for each user. In simpler personalized education programs, instructors and coaches steer learners onto the content most suitable for their current phase of mastery, adjusting the material as the class progresses to avoid pushing all learners at the same pace without depriving any of them of any information they need.

As a result, different learners will take different amounts of time with the same material.

More sophisticated approaches have created personalized learning models that go beyond the user's role, applying AI and machine learning algorithms to track mastery. This allows content to be reviewed as needed in areas where progress is slow while accelerating the learning curve in areas where learners show mastery, which suits many personalized learning models.

When an LMS uses these powerful tools to customize the path from available content choices on the fly, it’s called adaptive learning.

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Optional Step: Create Flexible Learning Spaces

One of the most common additional features employed in personalized curricula is the flexible learning space. While it’s not unique to personalized models, it’s a vital component of addressing the needs of diverse cognitive styles.

Flexible spaces allow learners to move around, adopting study positions or moving into group discussions on course topics at their own speeds. Flexible spaces tend to allow multiple paths to evaluation provided core learning objectives are met.

They are also used widely in competency-based learning and in hybrid programs that use both methods to increase the accuracy of the course customization for each student.

Online, flexible learning is achieved with deadline versatility, non-linear design, and assessments that provide a variety of approaches to the material. Allowing students to give a presentation via conferencing software as an alternative to a traditional research paper would be one example of including flexible learning spaces in an online course.

For Teachers: How to Personalize Learning in the Classroom?

While it’s easy to see how personalized approaches flourish in online spaces, the discussion around this topic as it started in 2009 was focused on in-seat learning.

Adopting projects with multiple paths to completion is one way to personalize classroom experiences. What’s personalized learning in the classroom without the custom paths and profiles, though?

You need to create systems for tracking individual proficiencies while allowing multiple options for demonstrating that knowledge to truly engage learners.

That means taking a page from the Montessori approach and designing courses that allow students to choose the lesson order within some limiting parameters that allow you to guide progress forward individually.

Alternatives to Personalized Learning

Traditional Standard-Based Models

Traditional approaches to education at every level in the United States have emphasized standardized learning objectives students should reach each grade.

The programs are designed to move students through the curriculum in a linear fashion at the same speed, providing an evaluative assessment of progress but little flexibility to repeat and master material unless it’s totally failed.

Often, this method also emphasizes passive learning like listening to lectures and taking notes or reading textbook materials. It’s often criticized and its shortcomings for diverse learners are well-documented, but the system is well-established and it does work reasonably well for most learners.

Even within traditional educational institutions, though, there are fewer and fewer proponents of an uncompromising standards model each year.

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Competency-Based Learning

For an alternative to personalized learning that still provides flexibility and an individualized approach to instruction that favors diverse cognitive styles, it’s a good idea to look toward competency-based learning.

This model, like personalized models, provides learners with the ability to approach material at their own pace and to review as needed. The difference is in the method of individualization and customization.

Where personalized approaches tend to track learners via profiles, competency-based systems leave the learners free to choose a path. Instead of traditional linear progression or an engineered approach to serving content, learners move ahead by using their acquired knowledge to demonstrate competency in the core learning objectives.

While Montessori schools have elements of personalized instruction, they tend to fit the competency-based model a little more closely.

In reality, however, Montessori instruction is a different animal from either, a predecessor with similarities to its descendants.

Maximizing Personalization With an LMS

Whether you move fully into an AI-powered adaptive learning model or you use the LMS to streamline personalization using a more instructor-driven approach to customization and personalization, your LMS can help make efforts in this direction more efficient.

When using these approaches in face-to-face classes, an eLearning shell helps to effectively track participation in readings and performance on quizzes and other assessments without getting in the way of active engagement.

In hybrid and online settings, the ability to contain all of the coursework that needs to be assessed within the shell makes establishing a learner profile easy, and from there it’s a simple matter of role and group assignment to set learners with similar profiles onto custom paths.

To learn more about how universities and other institutions of higher learning can make the most of personalized learning models, check out the customizability and versatility available from Open LMS. Contact us or schedule a demo to see it in action.

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