Personalization is ubiquitous in online services, with consumers accustomed to seeing targeted recommendations for music, videos, search results, people to follow and items to buy. Although used primarily as a marketing tool, personalization has the potential to revolutionize engagement in online courses and create a tailored, compelling experience that encourages learners to achieve their study goals.

What do you want to learn today?

A student may feel overwhelmed when greeted with a long list of lessons, wondering where they will find the time and energy needed to complete their course. A combination of micro-learning, where learning is broken down into manageable increments, and personalization to filter content to fit learners’ needs is ideal to prevent information overload.

With microlearning, a course is broken down into bite-sized chunks so that information can be absorbed and retained more readily. It offers flexibility for working professionals or students with time constraints, as they can complete a lesson without needing to commit a large amount of time at once. Personalization can further prevent information overload by narrowing down all of the content available to display only the lessons you need to focus on now. This can be determined through testing or the student can choose which areas they want to focus on, and participate in related lessons based on their relevance, skill level or area of interest.

According to Wharton research from the University of Pennsylvania into consumer purchasing patterns, there was a 50 percent increase in purchases by people who were shown personalized recommendations compared to those who weren’t. Wharton professor, Kartik Hosanagar, said this is because personalization “exposes you to a lot more items you like, so you consume more than you used to before.” When applied to online learning, the incentive to consume more – that is, complete more lessons – through personalization can positively impact course completion rates, which are approximately 10 percent on average industry wide.

Increasing engagement

Although people have the best intentions to study, often life gets in the way and online learning is overlooked. Anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution and hasn’t followed through can identify with the initial burst of enthusiasm upon setting a goal, followed by procrastination and forgetfulness. What if this year you had a weekly email reminder about keeping your resolution, you could track your progress toward your goal, and even had messages of encouragement along the way?

This is where personalization in online courses should be heading, as the true benefits will really be seen through establishing a direct connection with a learner to help them achieve their goals. A program that allows learners to set goal reminders, monitor their progress and see a visual representation of how far they have worked toward completion will establish a solid bond that encourages them to keep persevering and returning to take more lessons. The ability to customize the frequency of their progress reports, goal reminders, and any other course related communication allows the learner to truly adapt their course to their own personality and lifestyle. This will help prevent people unsubscribing from irrelevant or incessant communication and maintain a constant, welcome connection to their course.

A definite area for growth in this regard is the learner being able to tailor the voice of these communications to what best motivates them. Selecting from a range of virtual personalities to cheer them on when they succeed, push them when they lapse or even scold them when don’t meet their goals will be entirely in the learner’s hands. This will increase engagement even further as the learner is not just interacting with a piece of software they have programmed their goals into, but a virtual coach who is guiding them through their course. The learner is provided with the necessary assistance to take ownership and control of their study, with the aid of management tools to help organize their objectives, record progress, and curate lessons to their needs.

A traditional ‘one size fits all’ approach to e-learning is no longer viable as learners are increasingly seeking to parallel the level of personalization they are offered in other aspects of their digital lives. Personalization has a significant impact on how online learning can be structured, and if it is adopted not simply as a marketing tool, but instead to facilitate engagement with participants, it will have tangible advantages for both e-learning providers and learners alike.