Moving Towards Personalized Learning

Utilizing personalized learning is more realistic with online learning platforms. Personalized learning can be broken down in two ways. First, there is learning on a course level where a teacher or system responds to the learning aptitude of its students as they teach them. For example, a teacher assigns each student a problem set based on their skill level. With testing, a platform uses question prompting like the GMAT:  a correctly answered question is always followed by a more difficult one. This keeps students actively engaged and challenged, the lack of which a reason why students are not performing in college classrooms. Derek Bok says:

Undergraduates who are more engaged in active learning – applying knowledge to solve problems, discussing ideas in and out of class, integrating insights from various sources, and examining their own methods of thinking – spend more time than their classmates preparing for their courses.[i]

Second, there is learning based on a sequence of courses (and often other learning channels) where a student builds an expertise with skills and acquires domain knowledge. Sometimes the sequence is structured in the form of a degree or certification, sometimes the sequence is freeform based on the specific needs of the professional; the latter is becoming more common because online learning makes self-guided learning more affordable and accessible. It is more efficient and practical to think building skills rather than degrees.

Personalized Learning
Personalized Learning

Here are some benefits of having both kinds of personalized learning in higher education.

Being able to learn at your own pace is a compelling reason to adopt online learning and having the resources to allow you to dedicate as much time as you want towards learning is powerful. I do not advocate rushing a learning process and I know a lot of learning is sequential; (there are usually pre-requisites when taking advanced courses). However, I believe it is possible to concentrate your efforts where you spend the same amount of time learning but do it faster by dedicating more hours a week.

It was shocking to learn full-time students on average spend twenty-seven hours a week towards academics.[ii] In my opinion, the baseline should be at least forty hours a week (a typical work week), and could be as much as sixty to eighty hours a week (which some students spend in business, law, and med graduate programs). (One student spent this upper threshold of time on his coursework and completed an associate degree in 3 months and 5 days.) To conclude, students can accelerate the time it takes to complete course requirements by utilizing online learning.

Some students simply learn quicker than others so why hold them back. The notion of a competency based model (versus the traditional credit hour model) is gaining headway for this reason. With a competency model, students are awarded degrees based on tests, papers and projects rather than class time.  And some colleges have adopted this model where students are charged a fee for the term and can take as many courses and assessments they want to fit into the term.[iii]

Professionals benefit from continuing education where they keep their skills sharp by staying abreast of new technologies, applications, and/or methods. Technology and globalization is transforming the typical work environment, so it is logical for professionals to utilize online learning to understand where the landscape is moving. For example, say you manage a web hosting company, you better have a deep understanding of cloud computing so you can respond to customers who ask you about it. Cloud computing is sophisticated enough where reading a few articles is not sufficient learning.

There are a lot of ways personalized learning works with a Skills-Based Approach. First and foremost, the central premise of a Skills-Based Approach is developing a skill set throughout a career. You create a plan to build required skills using all available learning channels and, in this way, it becomes extremely personalized. Second, a competency model of learning fits with the building and validating stages of a Skills-Based Approach where you assess the progress of building skills and later find ways to validate them. (So the time it takes to get a degree and the accumulation of credit hours becomes irrelevant.) Third, with personalized learning you present your skills and knowledge as you learn them. There are various ways to present a skill, which makes it easier to express what you have learned.


[i] Derek Bok. Higher Education in America. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013)

[ii] Jeffrey J. Selingo. College (UN) Bound: The Future of Higher Education And What it Means For Students, (Boston: New Harvest, 2013)

[iii] Anya Kamenetz. “Are You Competent? Prove It.” NY Times, October 29th, 2013.

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