Let’s get personal: creating personalised learning programmes

IT offers many learning and development options. One that’s exciting e-learning pioneers is the personalised learning programme.

Computers are generally accused of making things less personal. But when it comes to training and development, they are increasingly being used as a vehicle to deliver a far more individual and tailored approach to learning than was previously possible. These are known as personalised learning programmes.

Such programmes can take a number of different forms, but typically will include a diagnostic tool that carries out a skills assessment from which a customised programme of learning and development can be created. The user’s preferred style of learning can also be taken into account by the programme.

The learning plan can also relate directly to an individual’s skillset and will aim to fill skills gaps revealed by the assessment. It could also be aligned directly to specific career routes, providing the individual with a career map of the training or development needed to reach a particular position within the company.

Although adoption of these programmes is not widespread yet, their potential is starting to be recognised. Certainly, the concept dovetails neatly with current thinking taking place in the training and development arena.

It enables companies to more closely align training with both the needs of the business and the individual and, in an era of empowerment, it encourages employees to take more responsibility for their own learning and development.

“As learning shifts from an event to a series of elements, including activity that the learner can do themselves, there is a recognition of the need to diversify the learning process,” says David Wilson, a leading corporate learning analyst and managing director of Cirencester-based e-learning consultancy Elearnity. “Large organisations are bringing the concept of personalisation into the equation, but it is still more hype than reality. For many, it is still words on a PowerPoint slide.”

Educational role models

It is fair to say that personalisation is yet another buzzword to hit the training world and may be greeted by a degree of scepticism. But those employers who are unconvinced should perhaps look at what is happening in education, where there is continuing debate about personalised learning as one way forward.

At Cramlington Community High School in Northumberland, teachers help pupils identify and develop their own learning skills and use the information gained to structure lessons so students will learn more effectively.

Meanwhile, St Bonaventure’s in Newham, east London, is using pupil tracking and individual learning targets to help tackle under-performance. For more information, download a copy of A National Conversation about Personalised Learning from www.dfes.gov.uk.

“Personalised learning demands a cultural mindshift, but we’re starting to see it happen in schools and it is likely that this will move to the workplace,” says Jane Knight, head of research services at Sheffield-based, not-for-profit e-learning centre, Learning Light. “New generations will demand learning and development in this way.”

So how do organisations go about putting personalised learning programmes in place?

Whatever route is taken, it should be considered carefully and seen in the wider picture of a learning and development strategy. Although the learning must benefit the individual, it should also be aligned to the organisation’s business objectives.

There may be a case, for instance, for confining personalised learning plans to a particular group of people within the company to address a specific business need. Conversely, it could be rolled out to the entire organisation as a component of a learning portal, which will allow employees to take direct responsibility for their learning.

It is also important to understand that while the majority of personalised learning programmes rely on some form of technology, this is merely the tool that helps formulate the learning programme. The programme of learning itself is likely to comprise a range of elements and is certainly not confined to just e-learning.

“The personal development plan will signpost the learning solution that is most appropriate,” says Ian Hutt, development manager at learning solutions provider Academee in Wilmslow, Cheshire. It has been involved in creating personalised learning programmes for clients for several years. “It could be e-learning but it could also be a four-day workshop on leadership, or reading the Financial Times,” he says.

LMS or no LMS?

Organisations should speak to their current learning provider about the technical implications of implementing personalised learning. Be aware though that there is more than one route to this and such programmes don’t necessarily have to be linked to a learning management system (LMS).

Academee’s personalised solutions typically run via the internet and rarely utilise an LMS, says Hutt. In the case of the Department for Work and Pensions (see case study, above), it has developed and hosts specific online portals which different communities within the department can access.

Users can go online and use diagnostic tools to compile a capability matrix, which can then be used to put together a plan for professional development.

You may decide that using an LMS is the best option.

Private medical treatment company Bupa’s learning portal Plato, which it developed with Futuremedia, is underpinned by the healthcare company’s LMS. Within Plato, learners are given learning tracks related to their job roles, which helps them to understand what courses they should prioritise. The portal is also used as a repository to store learning material.

Not all clients take the LMS route though, says Carol Bowen, director of learning at Brighton-based learning provider Futuremedia, and some control the personalisation outside of the LMS. But, whatever the route to the learning pathway, the key thing is to ensure that it works as a programme of learning.

Wilson adds that companies should not make the mistake of thinking that creating a blended learning pathway for employees is personalised learning.

Elearnity carried out research into blended learning and found that organisations were offering staff different styles of learning. But the learners didn’t feel they had any choice or control over it, as the blended package typically dictated a block of e-learning – for instance, along with face-to-face training or workshops.

“This is not personalisation because it offers them no more choice than just sitting in a classroom,” he says. “Choice has to be one of the main drivers of personalisation.”

Many guises

Personalisation comes in several guises. For example, Futuremedia has used formative testing, such as identifying existing knowledge and attitudes, to provide different paths through the learning material. This is sometimes referred to as adaptive branching.

Futuremedia says this has been especially effective in behavioural scenarios where the outcome can be adjusted depending on a learner’s input. “Profiling like this helps us change the message, language and content of the learning and we’ve had good feedback from learners when we’ve used this,” says Bowen.

Personalised learning programmes represent a way forward for learning and development. They provide a means to ensure it is more targeted to the individual and the business, and they tie in with the general shift within many organisations to employee empowerment. The challenge for training managers now is perhaps how to embrace the concept since it potentially has a dramatic effect on their role.

“Learning professionals will become less of an organiser and deliverer of training and more of a facilitator,” says David Wilson.

Certainly as the learning process diversifies to take in more informal methods, there will be major challenges ahead, he adds, saying that one of the big questions that need answering is how to properly introduce and measure the informal learning process. After all, while an online personalised learning programme can put together a structured and coherent plan, the learner and their line manager will need help to implement, monitor and measure it.

“Undoubtedly some training professionals may see it as a threat because their role is changing,” says Jane Knight. “They can still be the experts but it’s not about telling the learner what to do, it’s about supporting them in a different way.”

Case study: Department for Work and Pensions

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) wanted to deliver self-managed learning to three specific groups of people, including 50,000 line managers (the other two were 120 HR business partners and 2,500 learning and development professionals).

It established the Leadership and Management portal (LAMP gateway), which included a diagnostic tool to identify managers’ existing skillsets and rated them against the National Occupational Standards for Management and Leadership. From this, an interactive personal development plan was devised and managers could then access LAMP training products, which included e-learning programmes and workshops.

“The personal development plan is based on needs and features the most appropriate learning solutions,” explains Ian Hutt, development manager at Academee.

Feedback from the DWP has, apparently, been positive, but Hutt admits that the implementation of personalised learning programmes can sometimes meet with a mixed reaction. “Sometimes it can be greeted with a level of suspicion – managers and employees may feel it has almost been ‘dumped on them’. This will often depend on the approach and focus of the learning,” he says. “But the early adopters are very positive. They have identified the benefits and this helps to build a business case.”

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