The Coming Era of Personalized Learning Paths

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Personalized learning paths, designed to meet the needs and goals of each learner, can lead to a redefinition and a new understanding of lifelong learning to include informal as well as formal learning, delivered at scale.

article artwork

Peter Smith is President of the Open College at Kaplan University (OC@KU). He blogs at Rethinking Higher Education.

Every now and then, I read something that provides a framework for organizing previously disconnected understandings into a more coherent logic. Such an experience occurred when I read the September/October 2013 issue of EDUCAUSE Review, with its organizing theme of "Higher Education in the Connected Age." In her Homepage department column, EDUCAUSE President and CEO Diana Oblinger elaborated on the theme:

Connecting is about reaching out and bringing in, about building synergies to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. . . . Everyone and everything—people, resources, data, ideas—are interconnected: linked and tagged, tweeted and texted, followed and friended. Anyone can participate. . . . In "A New Architecture of Learning," [the authors] describe an environment that "offers new ways to connect things that were previously considered disparate and 'unconnectable': people, resources, experiences, diverse content, and communities, as well as experts and novices, formal and informal modes, mentors and advisors." . . . When things and people are connected, they form pathways. One activity feeds forward to another. Learners understand the progress they have made, the improvements they still need, and what will come next. With connected learning, the focus is on these pathways—not on gates or gatekeeping. With connected learning, the idea is to connect-the-dots: to connect learning with life.1

The pieces of a theretofore unfinished puzzle fell into place for me, explaining contemporary solutions to problems I had wrestled with for forty years and encouraging a transition that had been five years in the making. In my 2010 book Harnessing America's Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning, I described why an emerging information abundance would have an impact on the traditional model of higher education:

Our system of higher education is based on and organized around the principle of scarcity, that the resources needed to provide an education must be collected in one place—a campus—because there is an insufficient supply of those resources in the general community. Not enough faculty members . . . classrooms . . . laboratories . . . library books. . . . The principle of scarcity says that for an institution to be valuable to the community around it, it must offer a service that community members can't get more cheaply or with higher quality somewhere else. The scarcity . . . controls the market.2

I then noted how abundant information—in its many, divergent forms and uses—would create a new ecology that supports learning in ways we could have only dreamed about ten years ago: "There are three big changes, unleashed by technology and the global economy, which affect education. They eliminate scarcity as we have experienced it, creating a new ecology of learning that will drive successful change."3

Two of those changes are unlimited content and unlimited access:

Technology is obliterating the old boundaries defined by the campus and its schedule, leaving multiple possibilities to provide organized learning opportunities. . . . [A] content-rich world, accessible and diverse, is developing more rapidly every day. Technology [is putting] curricular scarcity out of business. . . . Knowledge about how people learn, coupled with the capacity of Web 2.0, creates a high-potential learning environment in which rich curricular materials, combined with highly personalized support and adaptation, can be delivered to capable but previously excluded learners. Degree-level services can be delivered anytime, anywhere, to anyone. [In this world of unlimited content and access] the only actual barriers to access are capacity to do the work and ability to pay.4

If I had known then what has become apparent to me now, I would have added several additional consequences of abundant information: since 2010, the emergence of social networks, big-data analysis, abundant content in multiple forms, and the ever-evolving Internet have become primary enablers of mass personalization in higher education. Beyond content and access, these additional enablers give us the capacity to truly put the learner in the center and build programs around the learner's needs and requirements. This new ecology, as it is fleshed out, supports the development of personalized learning paths, designed to meet the needs of each learner. The result is a redefinition and a new understanding of lifelong learning to include informal as well as formal learning, delivered at scale. With these resources, we can envision learners' conscious lifelong efforts to set personal, professional, and/or academic goals, to make meaning from their experiences, formal and informal, and to achieve those goals with explicit plans and actions.

Picture of a Personalized Learning Path

For more from Peter Smith, please see this video.

Then: Personal Learning Paths Are Not New

Let's begin with some history. In the 1960s, the Canadian researcher Allen Tough, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), began his lifelong work of identifying and characterizing what he called "The Adult's Learning Projects."5

I was a young college president, developing the Community College of Vermont (CCV) when I first saw Tough's work, in 1971. We were building a college model and learning program that was community-based and adult-oriented; it included a strong commitment to value and a recognition of students' experiential learning for academic credit and for shaping the learning program around students' needs.

Tough's research identified and defined a unit of personal learning that he labeled the "learning project." Through his initial and subsequent studies, he determined that the average adult conducted eight to ten such projects every year, committing over 700 hours to these cumulative endeavors. I was deeply affected by this information, believing that if adults learned in this fashion, the learning, once recognized, could be both the foundation for and a part of the core of their postsecondary education. Furthermore, I reasoned that if there was a natural learning cycle and instinct to learn purposefully, even if informally, then a college that could harness that instinct to learn would be a powerful partner for the learner.

CCV was a member of the group that founded the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), an organization dedicated then, as now, to developing principles of good practice that undergird the high-quality assessment of experiential learning. I saw an immediate connection between the natural learning process described by Tough and the prior-learning assessment championed by CAEL. And I became extremely interested in the role played by an individual's personal and professional experience, along with its assessment, as a form of pedagogy or as a "teacher" of the individual. Again, it seemed to me that figuring out ways to include this learning in an individual's portfolio could be of significant educational value.

Although he did not coin the phrase personalized learning path or address the concept, each of Tough's learning projects included a learning path. De facto, he identified the existence of personalized learning paths before the first personal computer or the web, before Xerox and its copiers. Similarly, he demonstrated that adults had an informal learning cycle. At CCV, we asserted that as they engaged with a learning project, adults

  • identified a "problem" that required learning to rectify (assess),
  • planned and acquired resources (e.g., colleagues, libraries) to carry out the learning (plan),
  • learned what they needed to learn (implement), and
  • determined when "enough was enough," ending the learning cycle (evaluate).

But there were huge problems with learning projects in the 1970s and 1980s. They were entirely invisible to the outside world, as well as to most colleges and universities, and they were largely unrecognized even by the people doing them. In fact, when Tough interviewed adult learners, most initially answered his questions about learning projects by saying that they had not done any! Those projects had resulted in tacit knowledge, rarely recognized explicitly for its value or its impact. Our dream at CAEL and CCV was to surface this learning and give it fair value.

As known by anyone who either has experienced the assessment of prior learning or has worked with learners who do so, the act of reflecting on personal experience and what it has "taught" you is a profound educational activity. Reflection is, I believe, the process of extracting meaning from experience, of transforming tacit knowledge to identified knowledge and understanding.

My point? Reflection-based assessment is a form of pedagogy, through which active reflection and the development of evidence to support the claims of learning transform the learner's experience from passive to active engagement and understanding. And in fact, research done at both CAEL and Kaplan University affirms this point.6 People who successfully complete such an assessment not only do better academically after completing a portfolio but also graduate in significantly higher numbers.

Personalized learning paths are nothing new; they were just invisible. And learning projects were there for Tough to identify in the 1960s. Some educators have been capitalizing on the value of such learning through assessments for almost fifty years.

Yet all of this learning and assessment activity has remained marginal to the mainstream of higher education and career education activity, for several reasons:

  1. Academic bias. There was, and remains, an extremely strong bias that if something wasn't learned "here" or "in a classroom," it isn't legitimate learning. Although this bias has weakened more recently, it was academic dogma forty years ago. In the mid-1970s, a progressive academic told me: "I am here to move you from where you are to a higher level—to add to your knowledge, not just recognize what you already have." That was an enlightened position compared with the views of those who believed that experiential learning was, by definition, low quality and irrelevant to the academic purpose. In addition, as we clearly understand today, there were economic underpinnings to this academic conceit. The more study done at the college or university, the more money was paid to the institution. Academic tradition and economic incentives went hand-in-hand.
  2. Academic structure. The structure of degree programs, requirements, and calendars, including residency requirements, reinforced and institutionalized this bias. Instead of focusing on what learners knew and how well they knew it, colleges and universities paid attention to where students had taken courses, whether the courses would transfer, and what residency requirements had been fulfilled. Additionally, this structure emphasized the liberal arts side of the curriculum, downplaying preprofessional and other job-related studies as less worthy. Personal and experiential learning were not on the list at all.
  3. A paper-heavy process. Even when the assessment of prior experiential learning was practiced and valued, the process was a time-intensive and grueling task of identifying and collecting the evidence of learning via the U.S. Postal Service. I can vividly remember a learner coming into a review session with subject matter experts carrying three cardboard cartons of files, employment reviews, and other evidence to support his credit claims. Portfolios were paper files. Because of the information-management limitations of that era, the assessment of personalized, experiential learning could never grow beyond a "boutique" status because it was a people-intensive process that could serve only limited numbers of students at each institution every year. The requirements for the learner—in personal time to manage the collection of evidence, in discipline to organize and prepare it, and in persistence to "see it through"—were additional inhibitors to completing a portfolio.

As was pointed out in the EDUCAUSE Review "Connected Age" feature articles, many of these issues can be laid off to tradition, politics, and culture. But even if those elements had been more sympathetic to experiential and personal learning projects and to the personalized learning pathways they populated, there was one more, insurmountable problem:

  1. An information-poor environment. There was no technology to support and enrich personal learning. Personalized learning paths were the private experience of the individual adult learner. Adult learning projects were manual and direct. And there was no way to manage these projects in any other fashion, no way to scale them, and no way to bring information and analytics to the fingertips of the learner. Hence, the ability to harness the value of experiential learning and personal learning projects and define their academic value was largely nonexistent. It was, at best, a boutique business.

Now: We Have the Capacity to Scale Mass Personalized Learning Paths

Virtually the only thing that has not changed in the nearly forty-five years since Tough published The Adult's Learning Projects is the validity of his research on learning projects. People still spend over 700 hours learning each year, and that learning is still personal, involving the cycle described above: assess, plan, implement, evaluate. But the processes that are available to support the learning, intrinsically and extrinsically, have been transformed by technology into a powerful, progressive, and disruptive force in higher education and workforce preparation. Our ability to access content and world-class diagnostics, to understand learner behavior, and to harness and mine big data for the purposes of learning assessment, academic advising, and career exploration has expanded at rates that actually outstrip institutions' ability to understand, invest, and respond.

Equally important, as part of this technological and web-driven disruption, learners' capacity to develop and store evidence of learning in electronic portfolios, carefully organized around career, academic, or personal interests, has also been transformed. First described eight years ago in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, the long tail supports learners' ability to, among other things, access discrete "pieces" of information that they need, participate in socially networked discussion groups, and crowdsource the quality of their work.7 Pieces of knowledge, or modules of curriculum that used to be scarce and rarely used, are no longer inaccessible. Put another way, an arcane piece of information, or a module of curriculum that could never justify a semester-long lecture course, is now available for the occasional user whenever it is needed.

To sum up, in the past an adult learner assessed, planned, implemented, and evaluated his or her personal learning in near complete (and often lonely) isolation and off the higher education and career radar. Now, learners can bring that learning forward as part of a personalized lifelong learning plan that can be assessed for credit toward a degree or for advancement toward a new job or recareering.

Not incidentally, this ever-expanding, information-rich environment and the open door to mass personalized learning that it has created seriously disrupt the dominant value proposition that has been the definition of higher education: the campus, where students go to learn, and faculty, with all the controls that they imply. Personal and informal learning has come out of the academic closet. Now, coupled with formal learning from outlets other than traditional colleges and universities, it can constitute a foundation for further conscious and purposeful learning.

Even in this emerging environment, a cautionary question might arise: "What kind of institutional model can prepare for and support the learning aspirations of millions of people? Surely there has to be some homogenization of learning needs to allow for those needs to be resourced and supported appropriately." This concern, though logical and appropriate, misses the fundamental power that lies behind personal learning because of new technologies.

First, the personal learning, though specific to each learner, may have many common elements across multiple learners' experiences. There need not be and will not be one million unique solutions for one million individual learners. But there can be a personalized learning plan for each person—a plan that connects the learner and his/her history to a chosen future. The components of the plan are not unique to each learner; what is unique is how the plan fits to the learner's needs and aspirations.

Second, though some personal learning enabled by the college or university may be specific to the learner, personal learning does not have to be unique. It does, however, have to be understood by the learner and reflect on the learner's needs. In other words, if learning plans connect learners' past and present to a future they desire, and if learners help "architect" their plans, then the learning will be deeply personal.

Third, with the right learning support structure designed and in place, the learner is, for the first time, in the driver's seat. Emerging understandings of how to organize and employ data to identify and then meet learners' needs, based on an assessment of what they already know, have created an environment in which learners, with good data and good advice, can make their own educational decisions.

We have come to a significant crossroads. Our societal ability to support mass personalized learning paths, coupled with our knowledge and the technology to do so, exists and is growing every day. The challenge is: How will we react to the opportunity that this increased capacity gives us?

One Example

As Chris Dede wrote in his article in the "Connected Age" issue of EDUCAUSE Review: "The primary barriers to [transformation] are not conceptual, technical, or economic. The primary barriers are psychological, political, and cultural. . . . Whether we have the professional commitment and the societal will to actualize such a vision remains to be seen."8

Three years ago, I was asked to come up with a model for higher education in the future. As I looked at the world then, my experience told me that a linear path forward, from where an institution was at that time to where it might be in the future, standing alone, was likely a pathway to failure for most. So I assembled an informal team of innovative yet practical thinkers and posed the question: "If you could start with a clean slate, what is the institution and organizational structure that you would start with?"

After looking for a starting point for the conversation, we settled on the following additional questions:

  • What would a learning model look like if higher education was situated not as a required passage but, rather, as a collaborator for clarifying and supporting the needs, desires, and goals of the learner?
  • What would a learning model look like if it included certificates and degrees but only as an option (unless required by professional standards or law)?
  • What would a learning model look like if learners could use existing resources to understand learning requirements and to design their own learning pathways with the support of mentors?
  • What would a learning model look like if career and academic needs were treated as equal and complementary?
  • What would a learning model look like if it was organized to begin with the learner's current knowledge and build toward the learner's goals?

Put another way, our team asked what would happen if the adults referenced by Tough's research had the tools of the Internet, including big data and multiple assessments, at their disposal to support their personal learning projects.

There will certainly be various answers to these questions. But three years later, after a series of starts, stops, stumbles, and breakdowns, along with some affirmations and the conceptual breakthrough legitimized by the EDUCAUSE Review articles, we have a model for mass personalized learning—a model whose quality, we believe, will be as high as its costs are low. Our answer is a personalized learning service, or learning support hub, housed at the Open College at Purdue University Global. This service includes access to mentoring, assessment, certificates, and degrees. But of equal importance is what it does for learners. It encourages learners to

  • understand their current state in terms of career aspirations and current knowledge,
  • define their next, or ultimate, learning goal in either academic or career terms,
  • examine the resulting gap analysis between current state and ultimate goals, and
  • find open education resources that, coupled with our support and assessments, will fill the gap identified.

We have developed several tools to support these inquiries, including the following three:

  • Learning Recognition Course []. The Learning Recognition Course is a free course that walks the learner through the steps to build a prior learning portfolio, including requests for credit based on prior experiential learning.
  • CareerJourney []. CareerJourney is a free course that inspires and guides people in their career journey. It provides a personalized experience that integrates data based on the individual's LinkedIn profile and drawing from the LinkedIn database.
  • LearningAdvisor. LearningAdvisor is a hub that includes free courses, paid courses, certificates, degree programs, insights, and inspiration to help adult learners explore their learning possibilities.

We also have a primary relationship with AARP's new LifeReimagined service, which serves their members using Kaplan's LearningAdvisor.

All of these services are free and can connect the individual to multiple futures:

  1. Informal learning using LearningAdvisor's MOOC index
  2. Career clarification using the CareerJourney database and job information
  3. An informal estimate of the value of the learner's combined formal and experiential learning analyzed against learning goals using the Learning Recognition Course
  4. The OC@KU Bachelor of Science in Professional Studies, where an Individualized Learning Plan populated with maximum transfer credit and with credit for experiential learning allows learners to use MOOCs for completing their study with assessments conducted by the college
  5. Challenge and portfolio assessments connected to OC@KU and to the course outcomes throughout the entire KU course catalog
  6. A college consortium currently including OC@KU, Charter Oak State College, Kaplan University, and Mount Washington College, where transfer credit is maximized and degrees are assessment-based

By storing historic and ongoing learning evidence in an electronic portfolio, OC@KU learners can also access "off-the shelf" services—such as CLA+ to quantify their cross-cutting intellectual abilities, or Gallup's StrengthsFinder, to understand their strong behavioral traits and how those traits align with career choices. If and when a learner either needs or wants a certificate or degree or a transcript of his/her learning, OC@KU will conduct assessments to convert the information in the electronic portfolio to academic and/or career outcomes, adding the value that comes as a result of moving from self-assertion to third-party affirmation of one's knowledge, skills, and abilities.

The personalized learning service at OC@KU is high quality because it aligns free learning resources with identified learning needs and "seals the deal" with rigorous assessments via challenge exams, portfolio review, and oral exams when the learner seeks formal review. The service is also low cost, for two reasons. First, access to the apps and open resources is free. Second, learners pay only when they enroll in the degree program and/or when they convert their learning to value, through assessment, including their prior experiential learning and college-level learning done in noncollegiate environments, reducing time and expense to degree. In this environment, the degree is not a price point. It is a recognition that the learner has chosen to satisfy those requirements and has done so.

Mass personalization in higher education is here to stay. It is another tool in the ever-expanding toolbox that educators have at hand.


As conceptualized in the "Higher Education in the Connected Age" issue of EDUCAUSE Review, connection enabled by technology can lead to the individualized support of personalized learning projects. The same data and tools can be used in multiple adaptations by employers, career services, nonprofits, education service companies, and higher education institutions to widen their offerings and increase their ability to meet the needs of individuals, one person at a time. It is a short step from there to mass personalization through which learners are helped to identify their goals, assess their "current state," plan the learning that will get them where they want to go, and achieve that learning, with or without external support.

We have always had personalized learning paths. Now, thanks to social networking, big-data analysis, the Internet, and new knowledge about learning and behavior, we will be able to scale those personalized learning paths—to millions of learners in the coming era.

  1. Diana G. Oblinger, "Higher Education in the Connected Age: Pathways," EDUCAUSE Review 48, no. 5 (September/October 2013). (Italics added.)
  2. Peter Smith, Harnessing America's Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 95–96.
  3. Ibid., 99–100.
  4. Ibid., 100, 104–5.
  5. Allen M. Tough, The Adult's Learning Projects: A Fresh Approach to Theory and Practice in Adult Learning (Toronto, Canada: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1971).
  6. Rebecca Klein-Collins, "Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success: A 48-Institution Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes," Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), March 2010; Kaplan University Institutional Research Office.
  7. Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (New York: Hyperion, 2006).
  8. Chris Dede, ed., "Connecting the Dots: New Technology-Based Models for Postsecondary Learning," EDUCAUSE Review 48, no. 5 (September/October 2013).

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 49, no. 6 (November/December 2014)