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What Learners Want From Personalisation Will Surprise You

I have a problem with Netflix.

Netflix is all about content personalisation. They treat the ability to deliver the right content, at the right time, to the right person, as a complete science.

And they can take it to some pretty extreme ends. It’s not just categories and ordering and recommendations. It’s the damn covers.

You know they say, never judge a book by its cover?

Well, Netflix changes the cover art that you see for any given show to that which is most appealing to you. They just change the cover until you judge it favourably… I never knew that.

Anyhow, I have a love / hate relationship with Netflix.

The interface works fine. Something that was a huge problem a few years ago, streaming HD quality video instantly, is literally never a problem for me. Netflix is, by all accounts, a wonderful innovation.

So why the hate?

Because for all of the personalisation in the world, my wife and I can never agree what to watch. Every night ends in a 20 minute debate and a fairly unsatisfactory experience – for all the personalisation in the world, we still can’t decide what to watch.

I’ve spent literally hours of my time staring at this screen.

Choosing a film to watch has always been contentious. I know my wife about as well as anyone and, given 5 minutes and a large library of options, I could not personalise a particularly good selections of shows for her on any given day.

You have to be so right with content personalisation to hit a person’s fancy, it is basically impossible.

So when Netflix is held up as the pinnacle of what the personalisation of learning could be, I think to myself, really? I bloody hate Netflix. And it’s not that the product is bad; it’s probably as good as it could be. It’s just that personalisation is so much more than content. It’s the experience.

We’ve become a bit obsessed with content as the focus of personalisation because algorithms work well when putting people and content together to derive a recommendation. A computer can do that. We can solve that problem. But it doesn’t make it a personal experience.

I’ve written at length previously about how our fascination with content as our sole means of instruction has limited our vision. We tend to be limited in L&D to taking on one concept at a time – Microlearning, Social Learning, Adaptive Learning.

And, in that sense, developing a more personal learning experience should be a more holistic concept than content alone.

We recently put out a survey asking what people wanted from personalised learning. We got some interesting results in terms of ‘features’. When asked if learners would like a personalised learning experience that recommended content to them based on assumptions about their persona, the reactions were fairly negative.

44% of respondents who identified themselves foremost as ‘learners / employees’ hated the idea of content being recommended to them based on assumptions. Whilst not all computer generated persona insights come under the banner of ‘assumptions’, many do. Many recommendation engines work on the basis of clustering and probability; that, given the data available, an individual is more likely to fit in to ‘bucket A’ than ‘bucket B’.

Note that Managers were much keener on this than employees. It wasn’t clear if Managers responded in this way because they were imagining their own time as being more precious, and this sort of experience might help them use content, or because they were going to be procuring this on behalf of employees and they imagined it would be well received.

The latter notion is worth considering; is there a big disconnect between the imagined benefits of automated recommendations and the realised benefits?

The split was perhaps even more stark when we talked about recommending content based on people like me (an oft quoted feature of websites like Amazon); more than half of learners / employees had little interest in content recommendations based on people ‘like me’, but more than 70% of managers thought it would make for a good or a great experience.

So what did learners want from personalisation? The answer might surprise you. One of the most positive responses (across the board actually, not just learners) came when we asked if people wanted the ability to change the look and feel of the tools they use. Nearly 90% of learners wanted this feature.

More than half of managers; same with trainers. It would seem that perhaps we should be less Netflix and more MySpace, when it comes to the personalisation of learning? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a sign of wanting more ownership, more autonomy, less computer.

That assertion is perhaps backed up by our last feature; the ability to define and follow your own learning path. Our evidence suggests that, when asked, learners seem to crave autonomy, not algorithms. Facebook gives us a good example of where the mass market has had this same thought; people generally hate the Facebook newsfeed and its algorithmic approach to showing you the latest updates from your friends.

Summarising Our findings

Our survey highlights what we’ve always known; that digital learning is about more than content delivery. When asked, learners tend to talk about the need for a more personal learning experience and they tend to shy away from features that make decisions for them.

Perhaps a really good implementation of a recommendation engine can show learners the art of the possible and redefine what they have come to expect from digital learning. Or perhaps we would do better to invest our time and resources in giving more autonomy to learners in the first place and stop trying to second guess what is right for them all of the time.

If you are thinking about creating a more personal learning experience in your business and you want to move beyond recommending content alone, we should talk.

If you’re interested the different ways Personalised Learning can be defined and how it can benefit your progress in the workplace, check out our free ‘Demystifying Personalised Learning’ OLX. The course will explore questions around personalised, self-directed learning, and how to get started facilitating more personalised learning in your organisation.

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