Chapter 8: The Digital Transformation Age Means Personalized Learning for All

by Mark Lombardi, Ph.D.

Posted on March 04, 2020

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The United States has the best system of higher education in the world. It is the most comprehensive, multi-faceted, accessible, and well-funded system that any society has created, and despite its flaws and failures, it has stood the test of time for well over 125 years.

But that position of strength is in severe jeopardy. Higher education faces existential challenges and threats from both outside and inside the academy. And ironically, it is precisely higher education’s longevity and success which now act as profound impediments to its future health and, in many cases, its very survival. Why? 

We are now in the early stages of what scholars call the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). This is commonly known as the Digital Transformation Age (DTA)1. Emerging amidst the evolution and maturation of the information age, this dynamic fourth age is inexorably intertwined with the growth and evolution of technology. More specifically, the digital transformation age represents the integration of technology within the full spectrum of human life, leading to profound cultural, socio-economic, and societal changes that not only impact people in all their actions and endeavors but fundamentally deconstruct, alter, and reconstitute business, education, healthcare, and social industries at their core level—it is an age of maximum and accelerating disruption. It would be almost a cliché to say that all of us, to varying degrees, are immersed in this new age and feel its disruption. 

This reality is all around us first in the form of mobile communication and computer technologies leading to an explosion of social media. While that evolution accelerates, the second manifestation is in the form of new and emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR and VR), and Mixed Reality (MR), all powered by the limitless applications of data analytics. It is being felt in every industry to varying degrees and at different speeds. Perhaps the most visible and omnipresent examples are personified by the emergence of mega-entities like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, among others. These businesses have harnessed the elements of this new age to disrupt and reshape huge aspects of the consumer society. In fact, they and others like them are in many ways shaping this new age. 

Higher education, with its 125-year old model and its cultural roots deep into the middle ages, is not leading this age. On the contrary, the academy’s reaction to DTA careens between moderate skepticism and outright resistance to it. In fact, the best that we can say about the academy is that it is woefully behind the times. The truth is that currently higher education is culturally, economically, and socially ill-equipped to master the new values and adapt to the emerging matrix of this digital age. 

The truth is that currently higher education is culturally, economically, and socially ill-equipped to master the new values and adapt to the emerging matrix of this digital age.  

But despite this harsh assessment, there is reason for hope. Higher education can and I would argue must help shape and lead this new age, but we must do so by jettisoning certain antiquated values and cultural assumptions and embracing a new matrix of principles that are firmly and inexorably anchored around one fundamental truth: Every person’s brain works differently, processes information differently, and engages in learning at divergent speeds and with a complex and diverse set of results. That demands that personalized learning be the new normal, not the exception, and it demands that learning pedagogy with all of the technological tools of this age adapt itself to the learner and not the other way around. 

The digital transformation age provides each and every professor, staff member, advisor, and student be they traditional age (18-22) or working adults (25-65) with the tools, data analytics, and systems to remake higher education and shape it around a new set of principles and values. These include flexibility, speed, active learning, problem-solving, learning diagnostics, modular learning experiences, and data analytics, all leading to a truly personalized learner-based model of knowledge acquisition and application. What was once called a “flipped classroom” must now move into the realm of true learner-centric education. How can this be accomplished? 

Simply stated, universities must abandon a reliance on standardized testing and antiquated methods of assessment and pivot into the realm of learner-centric education. Some have referred to this as professors ceasing to be keepers of content but rather facilitators of each learner’s individualized journey; no longer “sages on the stage but guides on the side2.” 

The keys to this shift involve institutional commitments to a staff-based advising model we at Maryville call life coaching, where learning assessment begins before a student arrives on campus. This learning assessment using a set of individualized experiences (i.e. Clifton Strengths, Learning Styles Inventory, College Student Inventory, and internally designed engagement surveys) forms the foundation on which faculty and life coaches can design a curricular strategy for each student. Combining this with digital smart textbooks, problem solving exercises, and real-world learning applications engages and empowers all students in their own learning process, rather than the warehouse instruction of the past. With the application of mobile learning technologies like tablets, smart phones, and other such tools, learning spaces can be designed around a core set of assumptions including student-centric, flexible, and team based. In addition, a deep and total institutional commitment of resources to retrain faculty in new and dynamic problem-solving based pedagogies must be introduced and fully supported, which will significantly alter the learning experience and thus empower students to proceed at their own internally dictated pace. Make no mistake, many faculty around the nation are already doing this, but their innovative work must be amplified, rewarded, and offered as the future and best model of instruction. 

While the goal of mastery of subject areas may be the same, each journey toward that goal is unique.  

Student assessment is thus not universal and standard, but part of a process that is different for each student. While the goal of mastery of subject areas may be the same, each journey toward that goal is unique. And the concept that students cannot learn certain subjects is jettisoned for the time-honored, proven philosophy that learning anything, from math and science to writing and professional programs, is a matter of tapping into individual learning styles and activating each student’s optimal way to learn. In this model, remedial education will and must become a thing of the past. 

This approach also allows curriculum to be freed from a linear building block approach to a truly modular format. Learners of all ages can and will gain and stack knowledge for all needs, whether it is degree seeking (undergraduate or graduate) or skill development in certificate or badge formats. While some disciplines will still be in a more linear format due to the demands of professions (e.g. nursing, physical therapy, accounting, and education, to name a few), others can be redesigned into a learner-centric model that allows for flexibility and experiential-based learning on what the individual needs at varying stages of their career(s) journey. 

The digital transformation age and all of its technological tools affords us this opportunity. To ignore the wealth of research and breadth of evidence developed over the past 40 years that proves each student can learn regardless of background, challenges, and experiences is to essentially ignore the realities of this new age. It would be equivalent to deciding to drive a Ford Model T across country because it is the best and most efficient way to reach your destination. 

Equally important, this new age allows us to provide “Amazon-like” service to our students that is mobile, flexible, individualized, and most importantly not dependent on personnel. Students need to interact with the service side of universities (financial aid, transcripts, food service, information, scheduling) in the same way they interact with Amazon, Apple Music, or Netflix. This means the DTA must transform all of a university’s “back-of-the-house” functions, moving towards a truly digital and personalized experience accessible through any and all mobile devices. Everything in the learning spaces should be challenging, helping students to reach their full potential, but everything outside the classroom should be easy with a service-first mentality. 

Everything in the learning spaces should be challenging, helping students to reach their full potential, but everything outside the classroom should be easy with a service-first mentality.  

Higher education cannot turn away from this age. If we do, then unemployment will rise, the socio-economic divide will widen, access and opportunity will be denied, and ultimately the darker forces of ignorance will manipulate these tools not to educate and empower but to use and exploit. That is why higher education must lead the DTA. We can only do that by harnessing its technological wonders in the service of student learning. We must recognize that old methods are not adequate any longer. Think of it this way: if you needed heart bypass surgery, would you have it performed by a doctor who refuses to use the latest tools and techniques in favor of how he or she was taught to do it some 30-40 years ago? That approach would be very unhealthy, bordering on madness. 

Shaping and molding this DTA for all students means that higher education can truly lead the greatest democratization of knowledge in history. It means opening up paths of access and opportunity for millions of students young and old, and it means blasting open the doors of exclusion that have plagued higher education, allowing students of color and from underrepresented groups access to a truly empowering education that can reshape lives, families, and communities. 

The Digital Transformation Age means disrupting the higher education model. It means personalized learning and access and opportunity for all. All we need is the courage to make it happen.


1Schmidt, E. & Cohen, J. (2013). The New Digital Age. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 

1Siebel, T.M. (2019). Digital Transformation: Survive and Thrive in an Era of Mass Extinction. New York: RosettaBooks. 

2King, A. (1993). From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. College Teaching. 41(1), 30–35