In this week’s blog on adaptive learning, I will share some benefits of using adaptive learning in higher education based upon the three major challenges Richard Culatta, former Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education, says America faces in educating our citizens.

Technology’s Impact on Learning
In a 2013 TED Talk on Reimagining Learning, Richard Culatta, (Twitter handle: @rec54), argued that the United States faces three major challenges in educating our citizens that technology is “uniquely suited to solve”:

  1. We must stop treating all learners the same.
  2. We must vary the schedule to allow learners to learn at their own pace.
  3. We must capture critical performance data sooner to help learners succeed.

In the video, Culatta explains you cannot simply convert traditional instructional practices into a digital format and then expect anything other than “No Significant Difference” as the result.  Technology allows us to totally reimagine the way we do education in this country. I agree with Culatta’s argument that technology allows us to do things that simply were not possible before.  Now, we can create an entirely new learning experience for our students. As Culatta suggests, we should implement this new learning experience and then compare student outcomes to those using traditional learning models to see if there is a difference.

So now that we have addressed the looming question about technology’s impact on learning, let’s discuss how the use of adaptive learning technologies and systems addresses each of these challenges Culatta mentions.

3 Key Benefits of Adaptive Learning:

  • Meeting Individual Learners’ Needs.
  • Addressing Demographic & Socioeconomic Factors.
  • Data, Data, Data.

Meeting Individual Learners’ Needs

Meeting individual learners’ needs requires that we stop treating all learners the same.  Today’s learners come to us with a wide range of knowledge, skills, abilities, and disabilities and thus require very unique strategies to meet their individual needs.  Getting to know each learner – what they already know, which of their skills are strong and which need developing, the unique abilities and deficits each learner brings to the classroom – is important to know before you can effectively teach that learner.

Researchers argue that incoming knowledge, what learners already know, is THE single most important factor determining future learning (Shute & Zapata-Rivera, 2008).  With this in mind, an accurate learner profile is critical in establishing a learner’s optimal starting point in their pathway.  Adaptive learning (AL) does this by identifying what each learner knows as they begin a new lesson and then continues monitoring their progress by showing faculty exactly where each learner is in the learning process, what they are having trouble with and the supports needed to help them get back on track.  Likewise, AL also prevents faculty from holding back learners who are ready to move forward by allowing learners to move at a pace that is best suited to meet their learning needs.  So, if a learner has more knowledge on the current topic, they are not only allowed to move along the pathway faster but could also be allowed to take on greater challenges to extend their knowledge or be allowed to move on to the next learning node, or topic in their pathway.

Addressing Demographic & Socioeconomic Factors

Access to quality education or resources is one of the major reasons there is such a large gap in student achievement in our country.  For this reason, we must stop keeping the schedule constant while varying the degree to which students learn and keep learning constant allowing the schedule to be varied.  Every learner is different and so is their prior knowledge.  Those with greater prior knowledge will grasp new concepts more quickly because they have a mental model they can easily attach the new incoming knowledge to and thus quickly make sense of it.  However, for those who lack enough prior knowledge, the new knowledge can be quite challenging to grasp primarily due to the fact that the learner has no mental model to recall.

The use of adaptive learning helps close this gap by providing access to learning in ways that meet the needs of your individual learners.  So for learners who lack prior knowledge, an adaptive system can quickly determine this through the ongoing knowledge checks and seamlessly offer those learners a learning path more suited to meet their individual needs and knowledge gaps.  For the learner who has a substantial amount of prior knowledge, he/she can not only move ahead but could also complete the lesson quicker and move on to more challenging lessons where they may need more or less time to complete.  In doing this, learners all reach the same outcomes (learning) but at varying rates (schedule).

Recently, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education created a report on over 70 research studies, Using Technology to Support At-Risk Students’ Learning, providing concrete examples of how technology has made a positive impact on student success.  The evidence provided in their report is powerful and, if your institution is committed to reaching those at-risk, this is a must read to open your eyes to the numerous ways in which technology, such as adaptive learning, can empower higher education institutions to meet learners where they are and ensure every student reaches the outcomes set for each course.  There is a great video about this work on the Alliance for Excellent Education website I would also recommend viewing.

Data, Data, Data

As an educator for nearly 20 years now, one of the most time consuming aspects of my job is assessment and evaluation.  More frustrating than the time required to grade student’s work, provide effective feedback, and analyze assessment data is the fact that by the time I am done, we have already moved on to the next lesson and then I have to figure out how to circle back and tie in any reteaching that may need to be done with the current lesson!  Obviously, I cannot do this for only one student and I constantly have to make the difficult decision of when to reteach and when to move on – essentially deciding to leave some students behind.

An adaptive learning system (ALS) monitors and assesses student’s work, providing personalized feedback, and organizing data for each learner and each outcome as well as the entire class in real time and at a very granular level.  An ALS collects hundreds of data points on each learner every second they are logged and neatly organizes the enormous data so that the professor can easily determine who needs help, who is ready to move on, and what challenges students are ready to tackle when they meet next.  Now professors can spend more class time engaging students one-on-one and in small groups to solve real-world problems and challenges they will likely face in the workplace.

RealizeIt and Smart Sparrow have produced a couple of YouTube videos that give you a deeper look into how an ALS can help a professor teach to each student and not the class.  Another adaptive learning platform, CogBooks, offers insight on how using an adaptive learning system can allow professors to teach uniquely to each student.


Want to learn more about adaptive learning? Be sure to check out the resources on our WCET adaptive learning issue page and follow along on our weekly adaptive learning twitter chats Thursday at 6pm MST (8pm EST/ 7pm CST/ 5pm PST) using #WCETAdaptive.

photo of niki bray

Niki Bray

WCET Fellow, Adaptive Learning
Instructor|Instructional Designer
School of Health Studies
University of Memphis



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