Personalized e-learning is on its way and we should be prepared


With the rise of digitalization has come the rise of digital personalization. Personalization has been existent for a couple of years now, in different kinds of industries, such as retail, cars and even perfumes (Randall, Terwiesch & Ulrich 2005). This means companies and researchers also already had quite some time to learn about both the benefits and the drawbacks of personalization. However, the drawbacks are harder to overcome nowadays, since the use of personalization has already been implemented on such a big, global, scale. Think, for instance, about privacy concerns that could have at least partly been prevented if legislation was set in place in time. However, we can all understand that it is hard to act upon potential drawbacks in advance if there is no prior experience whatsoever.

Nevertheless, it is always a good idea to be cautious and critical about upcoming trends such as personalization, before blindly implementing them without thinking about any potential consequences, either negative or positive. This means, foreseeing any potential drawbacks, as well as keeping in mind what you would like to reach as a goal by pursuing a trend such as personalization.

Personalized e-learning

Ashman et al. (2014) have presented a detailed discussion regarding personalization, but not in the field of, e.g., e-commerce, where it is already widely implemented, but rather in the field of e-learning. Personalization in e-learning is still in its beginning phase and therefore not yet widely implemented. Thus, the authors act in advance on warning e-learning providers and educational institutions on the potential drawbacks of the personalization of e-learning, including recommendations on how to overcome them, before it is too late. Especially since educational institutions are increasingly using such models as a way to gain as much as new students as possible, to increase their income, risking to lose their initial, most important goal out of sight: to enhance the quality of education. (Ashman et al. 2014)

But why is personalization of e-learning initially needed, then? The authors acknowledge where institutions’ interest in personalization of e-learning is coming from. E-learning is an upcoming trend on its own already to overcome the lack of time and resources to facilitate an increasing number of students globally. However, students might feel disenfranchised and their individual learning needs might become neglected by the use of e-learning. To overcome this issue, educational institutions are starting to implement the personalization of e-learning. However, then again, personalization comes with its setbacks.


The three main setbacks discussed by Ashman et al. (2014) are privacy concerns, serendipity issues and deskilling problems. The authors discuss these three setbacks in great detail. Privacy concerns is a recurring issue surrounding the topic of data gathering in general, which is also needed for personalization. Serendipity issues are about the reduced ability to learn and understand different beliefs, cultures and lifestyles, or to learn ‘out of your comfort zone’, as personalization leads to the targeted student to only be presented information that fits within his/her field of interest. Lastly, students can be deskilled in the sense that they do not learn how to critically assess and evaluate the information that they are given, as with personalization they are presented the results that most closely fit their needs, so they stop looking further very quickly. The authors emphasize, in order to overcome these issues, it is important to inform students about what and how data is gathered about them, and to give them the opportunity to control what information is presented to them. Additionally, they advise a clear and thorough understanding by e-learning providers and educational institutions of why personalization in e-learning is needed and what can be achieved by it, for which thorough experimentation is required.

In their paper, several universities, such as Harvard, St. Gallen and Ontario, are used as an example, from which data is analyzed very extensively by Google Analytics. Google Analytics tracks staff and students on the websites of the universities. This enhances the concern of privacy, as the user ID’s were visible.


Despite these discussed setbacks, the authors do see great value in personalized e-learning as “the system is genuinely able to interact with users, recognize when they need assistance and guide them to the appropriate information or educational activity” (Ashman et al., 2014). Unfortunately, the authors of this paper focus solely on education in well-established economies, which is only a small part of the world. It would be interesting to see the possibilities of personalized e-learning being enforced globally, and thus in poorer areas, too. Interestingly, founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, are planning to donate 99% of their Facebook shares to invest in, amongst other things, personalized learning. He mentioned:

“Students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the internet, even if they don’t live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity.” (Strauss, 2015)


Let’s see what the future holds for us and the upcoming generations regarding a transformation in education, not only in well-established, advanced countries, but also in countries limited in access to good education. Although the negative consequences should not be forgotten and be acted upon well in advance…


Ashman, H., Brailsford, T., Cristea, A. I., Sheng, Q. Z., Stewart, C., Toms, E. G., & Wade, V. (2014). The ethical and social implications of personalization technologies for e-learning. Information & Management, 51, pp. 819–832.

Randall, T., Terwiesch, C., & Ulrich, K.T. (2005). Principles for user design of customized products. California Management Review, 47(4), 68. Links to an external site.

Straus, V. (2015). A primer for Mark Zuckerberg on personalized learning — by Harvard’s Howard Gardner. The Washington Post. 

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