Today we’re excited to welcome back Patricia O’Sullivan, the Program Manager for Externally Funded Academic Innovation Projects at the University of Mississippi. Patti inspired us last year with the University of Mississippi’s work in this area to help their students and improve student success. Today she’s back to Frontiers to consider what’s happening with adaptive learning overall and provide an update on adaptive learning at the University of Mississippi (which is in it’s final year of their APLU adaptive courseware grant).

Thank you Patricia for today’s post!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

What is Happening with Adaptive Learning?

Anyone who has been following adaptive learning in higher education knows that it was widely characterized as the great promise for closing the achievement gap. However, as reported in the EDUCAUSE Horizon Report 2019, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of adaptive learning and its ability to penetrate an already crowded edtech marketplace. Covering adaptive learning in the Horizon Report’s Fail or Scale section, Nicole Weber asks, “What Happened with Adaptive Learning?”

A photo of a large academic building
“Lyceum via Library” by LRD615 CC BY-SA 2.0

While the EDUCAUSE Key Issues in Teaching Survey has demonstrated an interest among educators in adaptive learning for the last six years, it has never made the top ten. Is adaptive learning a fading trend or is it becoming so normalized a practice that it no longer generates excitement?

In the last decade, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in the promise of adaptive learning with grants for providers to create viable adaptive learning platforms and for institutions of higher education to adopt and scale these platforms. We are now in the early days of the fourth and final year of the institutional grant. How have the last three years answered the above questions, and is the future of adaptive learning a discarded trend or a common practice?

An Update on Adaptive at UM

Like other institutions in the grant cohort, the University of Mississippi

(UM) followed the trajectory outlined in the Adaptive Courseware Implementation Guide, spending year one in the planning stage, year two in the building stage, and year three in the use stage. Our plan for year four is to look back at how adaptive courseware has changed teaching and learning at UM and to look forward at how we will sustain adaptive learning on our campus, and how we can support other institutions in the early stages of implementation of adaptive learning.

Analyzing Adaptive Courses

In the last three years, we have collected data on the course outcomes for students enrolled in course sections that use adaptive courseware and those that do not. Our findings are a mixed bag:

  • some courses see significant gains in student success (as defined as students earning a C or better final grade),
  • some courses report no notable difference in the two populations, and
  • in a few courses, the success rate has declined.

While there are no simple answers to explain these differences, we are conducting a deeper dive into two courses that have seen improved success rates to see where student gains occurred within the class. For our biology for non-majors course, we are looking at homework, quiz, and test scores to determine if the students in the adaptive sections scored better on than their peers in non-adaptive sections. In our intermediate Spanish sections, we are interested also in quizzes, tests, and homework grades, but of particular interest is the oral proficiency component of the class, as the adaptive add-on is designed to bolster oral language skills. Of course, we are also looking at the data from courses in which student outcomes declined to determine if the adaptive learning platform was a factor in that change.

a group of students around a tableIn the past two years, we have collected qualitative data using student surveys and student focus groups. Our goal for this particular research project was to learn if students found adaptive learning platforms to be effective in their learning, and if so, which features of the platform were especially helpful and why. While we are still finalizing our report, early analysis indicates that while students find the courseware to be helpful in learning and in course completion because of particular features that provide student autonomy, the students themselves would not identify these platforms as “adaptive” according to the definition provided by Tyton Partners in their 2016 Courseware in Context Framework. In addition, students are frustrated by a misalignment of courseware with course lectures and high-stakes assessments, and they want better purchasing options for high priced access codes.

Mentoring through the ACES grant

 After having successfully implemented and scaled adaptive learning courseware in their courses, several of our faculty are reporting out on their process and their results at both edtech and discipline-specific conferences. logo of everylearnereverywhere with an arrowIn addition, we are also working with Every Learner Everywhere to develop Adaptive Courseware for Early Success (ACES) resources on the Every Learner Everywhere website. Finally, some of our faculty are working with Every Learner Everywhere through the Personalized Learning Consortium on the ACES grant by serving as thought leaders and mentoring faculty at ACES institutions across the country. One focus of Every Learner Everywhere is to empower instructors as they work to improve student outcomes with adaptive courseware. It is a constant challenge with digital learning innovations to help faculty to consider how they might teach differently with these new tools. Beginning this fall, Faculty Guild, an organization that powers online faculty learning communities, will provide discipline-focused, peer learning communities for faculty in the early stages of adaptive learning implementation.

Sustainability of UM’s Adaptive Learning Program

Although the grant funding is coming to an end, we will continue to support adaptive learning at UM by moving the grant program manager into our new Academic Innovation Group unit, which also houses other external grant programs, our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and our Quality Enhancement Program. In the new configuration, we will continue to advise faculty regarding courseware, to track pricing and other trends in courseware, to talk to students and faculty about how courseware supports learning, to support Scholarship of Teaching and Learning research around courseware use, and to remain engaged in adaptive learning through WCET and other ELE members including EdSurge, OLC, EDUCAUSE, and APLU.

What Is the Future of Adaptive Learning?

As adaptive learning platforms become more widely adopted on campuses across the country, I am reminded of how excited some educators were when online learning beginning to take hold. It took decades before online educators realized that simply digitizing the face-to-face learning experience was a poor use of the online platform, which has the potential to completely transform teaching and learning. We should learn from this example, and not squander the opportunity adaptive learning presents.

Adaptive learning will not solve the ineffectiveness of the large lecture/high-stakes exam class format, nor will it replace the benefit of instructor/student interactions.

While a handful of students have told us they appreciate digital learning platforms as a backup when the instruction in a course is poor, most students prefer a personal relationship with a human instructor to a personalized learning algorithm provided by a machine. However, adaptive learning can provide students more autonomy over their learning. It can be used to overcome outdated educational conventions such as the semester schedule and the standard letter-grade scale. And it can move us away from practices of convenience such as the high-enrollment, hour-long lecture, to practices based on evidence of learning efficacy.

In summary, it is not the tool that will solve our problems, but how we use the tool. At this point, adaptive learning could go down in the history of education as a flash-in-the-pan fad or as a transformative technology. The future of adaptive learning is up to us.


Patricia O’Sullivan, Manager UM PLATO Program's photo


Patricia O’Sullivan
Program Manager, Externally Funded Academic Innovation Projects
University of Mississippi



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