Adaptive learning has been attracting a lot of attention in the past years. The need of adaptive learning has been recognised by educational institutions, publishers, EdTech companies as well as by foundations and governmental bodies. Adaptive tools, used on quite a large scale in Higher Education in the US, are now being also embraced by the K-12 market. However, it is said that they have affected only 20% of K-12 students.
What is Adaptive Learning?
The concept is rather old and those who benefited from great individual tutors enjoyed adaptive learning and personalised instruction long time ago. Although good personal classroom experience is probably non-replicable in the digital environment, it seems that technology has opened new possibilities taking adaptive learning on an unprecedented scale helping to create individual learning paths for students who never dreamt about it.
Adaptive learning in the context of technology has a wide range of meanings depending on who uses the term. It seems there is no consensus on its definition which makes communication among instructors, data scientists, researchers, educational institutions and technology providers difficult. Some EdTech companies developing adaptive learning tools often do not apply this term to competitors’ products, regarding them as not adaptive. There is a need for a definition that could be generally accepted and consistently used.
Such an attempt has been recently made by EdSurge which interviewed a number of educators, product designers, university professors as well as EdTech companies and defined digital adaptive learning tools as
education technologies that can respond to a student’s interactions in real-time by automatically providing the student with individual support.
According to the definition suggested by EdSurge, tools that do not collect data in real-time are not adaptive. Tools that collect data through one singular assessment and prescribe a path of learning, but do not collect data or provide support in real-time are not considered as adaptive. There were also identified three areas within a tool where adaptive learning normally occurs: adaptive content, adaptive assessments or/and adaptive sequences.
The importance of Instructors
Over many years spent in the publishing industry I have come across numerous learning solutions created by publishers or third parties which were to help students learn at their own pace, at the right level and in the right place to help them master concepts and skills better and achieve superior results. There were tools defined by publishers as adaptive though they would not be adaptive in view of the above definition. There were tools which would not be adaptive according to this definition yet bringing results desired in adaptive learning and hugely popular among instructors and learners because of their ease of use and effectiveness. These tools worked, however, only when instructors were fully involved.
While preparing for Corporate Finance exam during my postgraduate studies I desperately needed additional practical assignments because of my non-finance background. The textbook in use was Corporate Finance by Berk/deMarzo. I did know this publication and additional resources very well as I was instrumental in promoting it together with the authors across major academic institutions in Europe. I was aware of the wealth of resources in MyFinanceLab – a robust on-line solution accompanying the book with major contributions from the authors. However, due to my lecturer’s lack of awareness of this tool and lack of engagement I could not use it to its full potential. I could access only self-study assignments which – though providing instantaneous feedback and detailed guidance – proved to be of limited effectiveness and help.
No matter what definition of adaptive learning we will use – and hopefully the consensus will be finally reached on terminology and taxonomy – the role of instructor in adaptive learning is crucial. The learning after all is a social and personal experience and instructors play huge role in shaping learners’ development, sparking their curiosity, motivation, creativity and engagement, guiding them through open-ended content. Instructors can enhance students’ social interactions with their peers and stimulate informal learning.
Adaptive learning solutions built around the instructors and making them adaptive engines are in my opinion the most effective ones and can lead to significant improvement in the effectiveness and quality of teaching and learning.
Teachers have a clear educational goal and can successfully link such a goal with implementation of appropriate solutions. As EdSurge research confirmed, they need, however, autonomy to override or change features in adaptive tools based on the needs of their students and their courses. An instructor may disagree with the assigned skill and may want to change it. The research also confirmed that most adaptive tools do not allow teachers to change or even challenge the way the tool analyses the student’s performance or recommends new content.
After all, it is the instructor who knows his students best and can build for them adequate learning paths providing the right content and additional resources. He can do this in the real time in the classroom for a group of students or determine/create content for self-study. Smart technology and data analytics help him make more informed decisions. He knows which students should be put into groups for project work and can also control the group work flow ensuring it is not dominated by some learners and encouraging more contribution from the others. It is the instructor who can enhance collaboration.
Collaboration and higher order skills like problem-solving, critical and analytical thinking play bigger and bigger role in preparing learners for study and work. A young tech start-up CoLearnr developing collaboration tools had a slogan: collaborate and learn more. How very true it is.
Relevant data gives instructors valuable insights into how students actually learn, which skills they use, in which order they should absorb the content and to what extent the order in which concepts and skills are taught matters. Then they can decide which skills should be further developed and which content would be best for such purposes. Learning analytics should be instructor-friendly and highlight the relevant data. Adaptive technology built around instructors together with learning analytics can help instructors enhance collaboration by putting learners smartly into groups for project work and enabling them to collaborate effectively in formal and informal space.
I very strongly believe the smart use of adaptive learning with full engagement on the part of instructor can help build effective individual learning paths for learners, increase quality of teaching and learning and hugely enhance the whole learning experience.