Debunking myths of adaptive learning

Adam Newman, writing for the Gates Foundation’s blog Impatient Optimists, recently named 2013 the Year of Adaptive Learning.  While adaptive learning systems have existed for a while, more institutions are exploring adaptive learning options as ways to supplement face-to-face instruction by offering students guided practice with targeted feedback based on assessment.  By adopting the systems, schools can help to personalize the learning for students.  But some myths exist with adaptive learning systems.  This week, I thought I’d tackle a few.

1.  Adaptive learning treats students like interchangeable widgets.   While the systems may appear to be static to individual students, adaptive learning leverages academic research in a variety of disciplines (intelligent tutoring systems, machine learning, knowledge space theory, memory retention, cognitive load theory, etc.) to create and deliver personalized learning experiences that are tailored to the varied needs of individual learners.  As students respond to assessment questions, the system adapts to meet their needs.  Different students will have different learning experiences based on their needs.

2.  Adaptive learning employs a “one size fits all” approach.  Looking across the landscape of options, a great deal of variety exists.  In their comprehensive examination of the adaptive learning landscape, Education Growth Advisors found a great deal of variety between the eight different suppliers they studied.  Each of the suppliers offers different support structures, content delivery methods, authoring options and assessment techniques.  With a diverse range of suppliers, individual institutions can select suppliers based of their individual needs and the culture of their campus.

3.  Adaptive learning is anti-teacher.  With content delivery and targeted feedback happening online through complex decision chains, many instructors feel the ultimate goal is to replace the classroom instructor completely.  The reality, however, is that the systems work in concert with the instructor’s role.  In a way, the adaptive learning modules prepare students to enter class and move to higher-order concepts.  The adaptive learning systems also report assessment data to instructors so they can walk into face-to-face environments with information about their students’ ability and progress.  Instructors can then adapt their lesson to better meet the needs of the students.

4.  Adopting adaptive learning systems can be costly.  While some academic publishers are marketing adaptive learning system in conjunction with textbooks, some more inexpensive options exist as well.  For instance, the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) developed by Carnegie Mellon University offers free adaptive course materials on its site.

5.  Institutions have less curricular control when they employ adaptive learning system.  While some suppliers offer closed systems with little options for editing, other systems are much more open to individual instructors and institutions authoring content that fits their needs.  Wondering which system would fit your institution’s needs?  Be sure to check out the institutional decision-making matrix in the Education Growth Advisor report.


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