In late 2019, as part of an extended trip through South America, I spent a few weeks studying Spanish at a school in Bogotá.

I had taken Spanish in high school and college, and at one point thought about majoring in it. But I hadn't practiced in nearly 10 years, apart from fumbling my way through a week in Spain in 2017. I was astonished at how far I progressed in such a short period of time at this little school in Bogotá. In two weeks, I had jumped an entire level.

Part of this rapid progression was likely because I came in with previous experience and was able to reactivate knowledge that was somewhere in my long term memory. But I believe it was also due to the school's personalized, adaptive curriculum. And I think there are three key lessons about how this school personalized learning that can make online courses just as impactful for our students.

Assessment and Targeted Practice

The week before classes began, the instructor invited me to the school for a quick interview, to assess my level. We chatted for about 10 minutes, mainly making small talk and getting to know one another. At the end of the discussion, the instructor talked with me about my Spanish skills, what level I would be taking, and what areas he recommended I start with.

Based on that conversation, my instructor tailored the first few classes to meet me at exactly the level I needed to be at, and start with the precise topics that I and my two classmates had struggled with during our conversations. No "this is Level 2A Spanish, we begin here," but instead targeted, focused practice to improve in key areas.

As the course progressed, the instructor added more topics and increased the difficulty, and also frequently circled back to practice areas for improvement, particularly those that he noticed I hadn’t yet mastered.

Online courses generally take a one-size-fits-all approach to the learning journey. A creator makes the content once and then publishes to as many people as possible. Everyone has access to the same content and either progresses through the material sequentially or chooses whichever topics they want to learn. But there's little to no interaction, no adaptability of the curriculum, and very few if any opportunities to practice skills. And students are required to monitor their own levels of understanding and revisit topics in order to continue progressing towards mastery.

This represents a tremendous opportunity to differentiate in online learning -- if you as a creator can figure out how to spot areas where your students need to grow, and present them with exercises and lesson content to help them develop those specific skills, your courses will be far more effective than the typical one-size-fits-all content model most online courses follow.

Personalize for Relevance

During my Spanish class, the exercises and examples felt like they were based on topics my instructor knew I was interested in from our small talk, things like film, cycling, coffee, literature, and travel. This made the course content more relevant for me as a student. These were topics I was likely to talk about in everyday life, particularly while traveling and meeting new people, so I would be more comfortable using Spanish in everyday conversation.

The major lesson here is understand the target audience in order to make content engaging and relevant to students. What do you know demographically and psychographically about your target audience? Where do they live? What kinds of jobs, interests, and hobbies do they have outside of the course's subject? What's their motivation for learning the topic? Then choose examples and exercises that relate to their interests. This will make the subject matter come alive in new ways. And on assignments and projects, consider letting your students choose a scenario that's relevant to their interests.

Adapting Towards the Target Outcomes

Fall 2019 was a slower season than expected for the school, so during one of the weeks, I was the only student at my level, and received 1-on-1 tutoring.

During this 1-on-1 week, between scheduled activities, my teacher and I often ended up going down a rabbit hole of small talk or discussing current events — in Spanish of course.

One time I realized we had talked for nearly half an hour about who-knows-what, and I apologized for getting us off topic. My teacher replied that we were on topic. He explained his goal for the class was to make me a confident everyday Spanish speaker. Therefore all the activities, whether planned or spontaneous, were part of the curriculum. And free-form discussions were actually a better practice of everyday Spanish, better even than the structured practice he had planned.

So often our focus when developing courses is making sure we explain all the necessary information to students. But just as critical as knowing how to do something is being able to actually do it when facing an applicable situation. This is why it's invaluable to give students solo practice opportunities within a course, not just guided demonstrations.

Consider how you might be able to encourage students to more freely explore how to use the skills you're teaching. One way this might look is to give students optional solo practice opportunities within a course - like optional practice problems or side projects. If possible, end a course by suggesting a few potential routes for them to follow next, where they can apply their newly-learned skills.