top of page

Personalized learning: Three Grand Challenges

Author: Andrew Jackson, Rethinkly CEO

Personalized learning for learners

I was chatting with someone from a leading Learning Technology company this week and we talked about learning personalization. “Getting the right content to the user, just when they need it and in the format they prefer” was what mattered to them. They saw their challenge as one of curation, and they were working on a project to see how Generative AI and large language models could solve it. We’re seeing a lot of focus on using AI to perfect the flow of bite-sized pieces of content to learners.

I know how important ‘curation’ is for my own learning too. I am currently making my way through a five-part YouTube video on a complicated piece of guitar music. Finding the video was reasonably easy, and it is just what I need to build my confidence.

However, bite-size pieces of content are sometimes less helpful with more complex matters, like when an employee needs support with handling a challenging situation at work or building their team leadership skills or planning their career.

So, curation – the provision of relevant and timely content - is only part of what makes personalization effective.

At Rethinkly, we prefer a slightly broader definition “The process of personalizing learning requires that a learning environment – whether it be face to-face vs. digital or human-driven vs. automated – take into account the learner and some combination of their prior knowledge, motivations, goals, beliefs, interests, skills, experience, and culture (and likely other factors) and provide an experience that is responsive to these features in ways that should promote superior engagement in a learning task and performance on it.”  (1)

And this definition means that to get better outcomes, learning designers need to tackle what we call the “3 Grand Challenges” of learning personalization. We’ve called them ‘grand’ because they are significant and of critical importance to learning outcomes.

Grand Challenge 1: Wants and needs

As learners, whilst we can often describe what we want, we frequently don’t know what we need. To use an example from a recent session with one of our clients, the want was “How do I have difficult conversations at work,” yet as the session unfolded it became clear that the need was “How do I listen better.” At the end of the session, the participant said “That really wasn’t what I was expecting, yet this is so helpful – thank you.” So good personalization addresses the wants/needs challenge by creating the opportunity for exploration and self-reflection. It also means that (even AI-driven) curation is only part of the answer.

Grand Challenge 2: User-generated content

There is ample evidence (2) that more effective learning happens when learners generate their own insights by connecting a new concept to their own situation. Creating space for learners to do this really matters, and it can be done individually or in groups as we set out in this recent whitepaper. And while this idea might seem challenging when thinking about pre-designed or standardized content, the use of interactive and immersive technologies offers new ways to approach this.

Grand Challenge 3: The F-word

Learning and feelings are inseparable. Feelings activate the reward systems in our brains, they can help us take in and remember new things and they affect our motivations to put new behaviours into action. (3)  So making every learning experience an emotional experience is essential for personalization to take place.

To conclude, yes personalized learning is about curation. And AI has a huge role to play in delivering the right content at the right time. But curation falls into the necessary but not sufficient category if we’re seeking genuinely transformative learning outcomes. For that, we need to see personalization as a much larger topic.

Back to my guitar piece example, the curation was only a part of the learning. The real progress was made as I practiced and paid attention to how I felt about the music, and most importantly as I started to believe in my ability to play it!

To find out more about how organisations are using Rethinkly’s immersive technology to achieve better learning and skills outcomes, go to


(1) Bernacki et al (2021) A Systematic Review of Research on Personalized Learning: Personalized by Whom, to What, How, and for What Purpose(s)?



(3) Osika, A et al (2022) Emotions and learning: what role do emotions play in how and why students learn?

49 views0 comments


bottom of page