Education needs to be reinvented.

From the 18th Century onwards, with the Industrial Revolution, education became massified. It became accessible to thousands, then to millions, driven by the need to develop workers for factories. A whole new ethos was created for work and for education, based on efficiency, schedules, and many people doing the same thing at the same time.

People had to change to a new lifestyle, keeping regular daily and weekly schedules, no longer dictated by nature, seasons and agriculture, but by the need to turn on machines and power supplies.
This model has changed very little over the past 250 years. Perhaps we are finally coming to the realization that it is time for a change.

The challenge is, on one hand, to increase the speed at which education is available to millions of people, all over the world. On the other hand, the challenge is to move away from the massification model of the Industrial Revolution, towards a new model that will allow absolute customization, down to an individual’s personal learning needs and unique style of learning.

When I was an HR executive at the turn of this century, I felt the concern over how to make executive development more effective. Leading companies and professionals in the field already realized that executives needed tailor-made learning experiences that matched each individual’s unique situation.

Training & Development providers have claimed to offer “tailor-made” approaches to their organizational clients, but what they meant was that they could offer a unique approach to an organization, not to each different individual. The usual approach was actually “Taylor-made” (a tribute to Frederick Taylor, creator of “Scientific Management”), since, for the sake of efficiency, it advocated putting groups of managers through the same learning program, 25 people at a time. That was certainly efficient, but the effectiveness for each individual would vary.

Imagine going to a tailor who makes suits with exactly the same measurements, 25 at a time… Not exactly “personal” service!

In order to design personal learning experiences, the first requirement is to get away from the classroom environment, for that is too far removed from the actual job situation. Research has shown that people learn the most in real job situations, when they face real issues and need to act on their own. If we want to plan and structure learning and development, rather than leave it up to chance, then we need to design situations that really immerse an individual in a challenge that requires him/her to respond in a new way. This is what personalized learning is all about: acquiring a new ability to respond , an ability that the individual will be able to exercise later in his/her work.

But if we want to make these challenging situations relevant to each individual, the starting point has to be the individual herself. What does this person need to learn? How can we provide him/her with an experience that will offer the kind of learning that is needed (and also in a style that matches the person’s preferred learning style)?

Fortunately, technology provides us with more alternatives than ever. We can send people anywhere, individually or in small groups. We can communicate instantly with each of these individuals, wherever they are. We can coach them, provide feedback and interact with them at any time. All of this was quite impossible just 20 years ago.

So we have the technology to enable true personalized learning experiences, but technology is not everything, it is just a piece of the puzzle. The other pieces include using technology to provide the right content, in the right style, and to offer coaching and feedback through an experienced learning professional. This learning professional can act as a facilitator to the process, in ways similar to the role of a personal tutor, a function often employed prior to the Industrial Revolution and the development of “assembly-line schooling”. The personal learning coach can help an individual to go through a unique reflection process, which is key for learning to occur. Without reflection, there is no learning.

Already some 50 years ago Alvin Toffler showed us that technology would not lead to massification, but rather to “mass personal differentiation”. Today an individual can go to a website and design his own tennis shoes, unique and different from anyone else’s. It’s time to apply similar principles to learning experiences, so that an individual can design a unique learning experience, matched to his/her idiosyncratic situation. Whoever starts doing this will lead the next education revolution.