Amazon has a real knack for changing consumers’ buying behavior. Logging on is like being welcomed by an old friend who knows you deeply. Amazon knows what you need even before you do, because it learns from behavior: which products you’ve viewed, what items you’ve purchased and how others like you have interacted with the site. That’s why consumers flock to it. Amazon knows you better than you know yourself. And that makes your life easier.

Think about how online learning would look if Amazon did it. It would no longer carry a stigma of trying to be “one size fits all.” Learners would have a personalized environment in which they would see what they needed when or even before they needed it. Online learning would become an experience people looked forward to because it is relevant, targeted and it makes their lives easier.

From Training to Experiences

As consumers, our online expectations have been built up by sites like Amazon. We expect a personalized online shopping experience and ease that drives our purchasing behavior. No wonder that as learning consumers, we expect a similar experience as we enter a digital learning environment. All too often, though, our expectations for learning are met with disappointment.

Today, online learning is still largely offered through a broad course catalog for learners to complete mandatory training or search for relevant or interesting topics. When faced with too many, learners become frustrated. Yes, we’ve shortened and targeted available courses and now refer to them as microlearning. We’ve gamified learning in the hope that learners will do more because they are motivated by internal or external competition. We’ve put learning at people’s fingertips on mobile devices, available when and where they need it most. All these improvements are necessary, but not sufficient, to transform learning from an event into an experience.

Personalization is the key to creating the experience. Imagine a learning system that knows you when you log on. This system knows just what kind of learning you prefer and what knowledge and skills you need to build and offers you suggestions for targeted learning and application opportunities. The system can distinguish between the need for pure knowledge acquisition and the need for deeper skill development through practice and on-the-job application. Seamlessly, the system syncs into your everyday life and becomes your trusted adviser and coach, always vigilant and looking out for your best interests. That level of personalization is what we, as learning consumers, expect.

Driving Personalization with Data

What makes a truly personalized learning experience possible? Data, for starters. A system needs to gather data about each individual: what you know, what you don’t know, what you can do, what skills you need, how you like to learn and more. These data will be infused into learning systems and constantly updated. It will go well beyond typical knowledge checks to become a continuous feed of behavioral assessments, insights gleaned from others and real-time feedback from on-the-job application. Continuous assessments can target learning needs at a granular level, like a specific behavior, providing focus for learners. This type of data introduces a robust analytics engine fueled by use. The more a learner interacts with it, the better it gets to know the individual and the more accurately it can provide meaningful, personalized recommendations.

Real personalization of learning will come from the collected interactions of each learner and the ability to pair them with the right courses, tools and experiences to propel the learner forward. For example, two managers might take a short simulation to assess their coaching skills. Based on their assessment scores, combined with other data, each is presented with a very different learning path. The one whose assessment data show a gap in providing timely feedback, and who prefers visual learning, might watch multiple positive model videos showing this behavior. Her colleague, an avid reader whose emotional intelligence could use a boost, might read an online article or blog related to empathy.

More and more, the results of these continuous interactions will be integrated into learners’ daily lives. Think of a future in which seamless technologies will scan your calendar for coaching opportunities, then offer in-the-moment tips and tools to help you focus your discussions and avoid some of your derailing personality tendencies.

As a learner increases his or her digital footprint through a continuous cycle of assessment, learning, application and feedback, the trusted digital adviser can more accurately predict needs and direct the learner to the most impactful experiences to change behavior and achieve results.

The People Behind the Experience

As we move into a personalized, consumer-driven model of learning, the role of learning professionals will change. Experience in instructional design will no longer be enough to succeed. They will need to become learning experience managers, drawing on design skills or partnering with user experience designers to create robust online experiences. Learning will no longer be just about knowledge acquisition but about making the full experience come alive.

Using data and drawing on deep analytics will be the norm. Learning experience managers of the future will need to understand and use analytics to drive personalization. They will need to embrace artificial intelligence and know how to fuel the engine to drive immersive experiences. Advances in technology will drive changes in learning design and require a deeper understanding of how to create components that will fit together in unique ways to drive individualized paths. Learning professionals need to reskill and reinvent themselves and think about learners differently: as consumers.

Learners as Consumers

So, let’s take a lesson from Amazon. Let’s treat learners as consumers and assume they have a choice to go elsewhere for their learning needs. Let’s create amazing online experiences to engage them and make them want to come back again and again. Let’s (use data to) become that old friend, that confidant, that mentor to help learners grow and develop like never before. Let’s create that completely unique and personalized experience that changes peoples’ lives.

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