Personalized Learning: Means to an End or the End Itself?

The learning field is currently focused on personalized learning which might be defined as providing learners with individualized, custom content in the way each prefers to learn. Advances in digital learning and platforms combined with an explosion in learning content make this advancement not only possible but highly desirable. It has the potential to contribute significantly to better learning experiences and higher application rates leading to better outcomes. This said, there is a danger that some will consider personalized learning not just a strategy to improve learning but as the goal itself, the reason or mission for the learning department. This brings us to a discussion of means versus ends and the importance of keeping the two straight.

I would suggest that personalized learning is best considered as a means to the end and that it will almost never be an end in itself. Over the past several years some in our profession have advocated that it is the end. They have redefined their mission as a learning department or corporate university to provide learners with whatever they want in whatever form they want it, which is an extension of our definition of personalized learning above. At its heart this issue of means versus ends is far from an issue of semantics; rather, it is a fundamental question about the reason for the existence of corporate training. Imagine a discussion with your CFO or CEO. They ask what your strategy is for next year. You say it is personalized learning and that the majority of your resources will be dedicated to providing more and better-personalized learning. They ask why. You tell them learners will be more engaged, will learn more, and will retain more. I guarantee you that in their mind you never really answered the question. Your answer is good as far as it goes but doesn’t get to the business reason for learning. You described a process improvement for them, one that will deliver learning more effectively and efficiently, and that is good but not enough. Basically, you are improving the means to an end by personalizing the learning, but they want to know what the end is. In their mind, the end may be higher sales, greater productivity or quality, fewer accidents, lower operating costs, or higher employee engagement, but you didn’t connect the dots for them. By not appreciating the difference between means and ends, you focused just on the means when you needed to also focus on the end. Better to tell them that you will improve learning in order to effect higher sales, lower costs, or whatever their goals are. These are the ends they care about and once they know that you are working toward the same ends, they will be more receptive to your request for resources to improve the means (personalized learning).

As a profession, we must continue to make great strides in process improvement and personalized learning is one such process improvement. But it is not and never will be an end in itself any more than e-learning, blended learning or mobile learning are ends in themselves. We don’t provide learning just to provide learning. The learning must serve a higher need. It must serve an end and that end should be one of your organization’s high-level goals or needs. With this understanding we also can see that personalized learning is not the opposite of company learning which has been defined as learning directed by the company (not the employee) to meet company needs. Instead, personalized learning should support the company goals and needs even if it is directed or mandated by the company. If at the discretion of the employee it is most likely to improve employee engagement which is a company goal in almost all organizations. If directed by the company, the personalized learning will support one of the other company goals like higher sales. So, personalized learning may be at the discretion of the employee or at the discretion of the company, but in either case, it is a means to an end.

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