Adaptive learning: What, Why and How.

Adaptive learning is the term for e-learning which adapts to its user’s needs. The idea is that learning becomes personalised, so that what you are taught and how you are taught it is relevant to you.

Rather than having a rigid course in which every learner is taught the same thing with the aim of reaching a specific learning goal, the needs of each learner are picked up by the system and the content of the course is adapted appropriately for each learner to reach that goal. This means that two learners who are on the same course with the same learning goal can reach that goal in two completely different ways, and the same course can include a variety of different content. In addition, as the course progresses, each learner is given feedback appropriate to their progress which provides them with reflections upon their personal strengths and weaknesses and an overview of the shape their learning is taking.

So we can see what adaptive learning is, but why should we use it? Why is personalised online learning a good thing?

Adaptive learning means that no learner is left behind. In a rigid course, one which does not adapt to the learner’s needs, a learner who doesn’t understand what velocity is can be left behind when learning about inertial motion. However, in an adaptive learning course, this need is picked up upon during the course and so that the leaner is not disadvantaged by her lack of knowledge. She is educated about velocity so that she can come to learn about inertial motion. Any learner’s weaknesses can be picked up on and addressed by an adaptive learning course – no learner is left behind.

Adaptive learning engages all learners. When it comes to adaptive learning, there’s no such thing as a ‘bored’ or ‘bright’ learner. Bored learners aren’t interested in the subject matter they’re being taught; bright learners aren’t interested because they already know what they’re being taught. Because an adaptive learning course is adapted to the needs of the learner, if the learner finds the particular topic boring then the course can recognise this and give her something that interests her. If the learner already knows what she is being taught, then technology will recognise this and give her something that challenges and interests her. By ensuring that bored and bright learners become interested learners, adaptive learning engages all learners.

Adaptive learning provides insight. As a learner progresses through an adaptive learning course, the content is adapted to her on the basis of the information she enters. However, there is another excellent result of this process: constant feedback. The technology is always aware of how well the learner is doing, what she excels at and finds difficult, and what her skills and talents are. This is not only to the extent of ‘Polly struggles with multiplication – practise multiplication’, but less obvious needs can be identified and addressed. For example, Polly’s apparent difficulty with multiplication can be evaluated in the context of her other successes and failures and an inference can be made to the difficulties she is having being due to her lack of close reading skills, and thus to a need to improve these skills. This kind of extremely personal evaluation requires close attention to a learner’s progress, the kind of attention that can be easily afforded by a dedicated adaptive learning course, but which would require an inappropriate amount of a classroom teacher’s time. By collecting and evaluating personal data, adaptive learning provides insight in to a learner’s personal development.

So we can now see what adaptive learning is and why it may be a good thing, but how is it currently taking place and who is doing it?

Knewton is an online technology company who provide personalised online learning courses and who has recently gone in to partnership with education publishing company Pearson. They provide personalised online learning courses using what they call ‘recommendations’ which draw upon four sources of information in order to recommend what the next piece of content a leaner will experience is: each student’s individual knowledge; the structure of the content in the course; the learning activities that have been most effective for similar students in the course, and the goals of the course. By using this information, in combination with Pearson’s ‘knowledge graphs’ (a graph which describes the knowledge required for, and its relationship to, other areas of knowledge and ultimate the learning goal in a course), Knewton’s recommendations provide to students with intelligent suggestions of personalised content when they are taking a course.

According to a recent paper published by Education Growth Advisors, a partnership between Arizona State University and Knewton saw an 18 percent increase in pass rates and a 47 percent decrease in withdrawals in math courses, saving the university an estimated $12 million.

SmartSparrow is an adaptive elearning platform. It focuses on enabling the teacher to create adaptive courses for students. The SmartSparrow platform enables teachers to create lessons with an ‘adaptivity authour’ which allows them to create adaptive pathways to content, and to create feedback based on the learner’s input. From these assignments, a teacher can track individual students with SmartSparrow Analytics: where they’re struggling, what they’re struggling with, and then provide them with the appropriate help. This enables the teacher to understand how students learn and how to improve the interactive lessons which they create. The idea of an interactive lesson is integral to the idea of SmartSparrow, whose philosophy is ‘learn by doing’.

The SmartSparrow platform is a result of efforts of the University of New South Wales’ Adaptive eLearning Research Group. According to a study conducting in a mechanics course at this university, SmartSparrow has reduced failure rates from 31% to 7%.

In this blog we have seen what adaptive learning is, why it might be a good thing, and how it’s currently being implemented. Adaptive learning personalises learning and adapts it to each learner’s needs. It engages all learners, means that no learner is left behind and provides insight in to the learning of every learner. It is also being developed in interesting and diverse ways, both commercially and academically. Will adaptive learning be the next big thing?

– Theo Moore