What Faculty Should Know About Adaptive Learning

I was honored to be asked by the American Federation of Teachers to write an article on what their membership should know about adaptive learning technologies. That piece is running in this month’s issue of AFT On CampusI am reprinting it here with their permission.

The phrase “adaptive learning” is an umbrella term that applies to an incredibly broad range of technologies and techniques with very different educational applications. The common thread is that they all involve software that observes some aspect of student performance and adjusts what it presents to each student based on those observations. In other words, all adaptive software tries to mimic some aspect of what a good teacher does, given that every student has individual needs.

Here are a few examples of adaptive learning in action:

  • A student using a physics program answers quiz questions about angular momentum incorrectly, so the program offers supplemental materials and more practice problems on that topic.
  • A history student answers questions about the War of the Roses correctly the first time, so the program waits an interval of time and then requizzes the student to make sure that she is able to remember the information.
  • A math student makes a mistake with the specific step of factoring polynomials while attempting to solve a polynomial equation, so the program provides the student with extra hints and supplemental practice problems on that step.
  • An ESL writing student provides incorrect subject/verb agreement in several places within her essay, so the program provides a lesson on that topic and asks the student to find and correct her mistakes.

In most cases, the software is adapting to details of student performance that would be obvious to any good instructor if she had the time to observe closely enough. Occasionally, there may be some extra bit of cognitive science knowledge built into the program that the average instructor would not know. For example, most teachers probably don’t know the details of how frequently and at what intervals humans should be retested on a memorized fact in order to ensure that fact gets into long-term memory. (And even those teachers who do know generally do not have the time to work one-on-one with students and requiz them appropriately.)

What It’s Good For

The simplest way to think about adaptive learning products in their current state is as tutors. Tutors, in the American usage of the word, provide supplemental instruction and coaching to students on a one-on-one basis. They are not expected to know everything that the instructor knows, but they are good at helping to ensure that the students get the basics right. They might quiz students and give them tips to help them remember key concepts. They might help a student get unstuck on a particular step that he hasn’t quite understood.  And above all, they help each student to figure out exactly where she is doing well and where she still needs help.

Adaptive learning technologies are potentially transformative in that they may be able to change the economics of tutoring. Imagine if every student in your class could have a private tutor, available to them at any time for as long as they need. Imagine further that these tutors work together to give you a daily report of your whole class—who is doing well, who is struggling on which concepts, and what areas are most difficult for the class as a whole. How could such a capability change the way that you teach? What would it enable you to spend less of your class time doing, and what else would it enable you to spend more of your class time doing? How might it impact your students’ preparedness and change the kinds of conversations you could have with them? The answers to these questions are certainly different for every discipline and possibly even for every class. The point is that these technologies can open up a world of new possibilities.

What to Watch Out For

Despite the promise of adaptive technologies, and despite the liberal use of buzz phrases like “big data” and “brain science” by the vendors who create products based on these technologies, adaptive learning systems are not magic. They are tools that should be understood and employed appropriately by skilled educational practitioners. So while they are well worth exploring, there are questions you should ask and issues you should think about before making any big decisions.

To begin with, if you are thinking about trying an adaptive learning product in your class, it is important for you to understand in what ways the software adapts to the students. Before you hire a tutor, you want to know what that tutor can and cannot help your students with. You might even want to watch the tutor work so you can see how skilled she is and where her limitations are. The same is true with adaptive software. There is nothing these packages do that you, as an educator, are not capable of understanding from a pedagogical perspective. If the vendor cannot explain the software’s capabilities in what amounts to common-sense language about teaching and learning—if all you get is techno-babble—then you should think twice about adopting. There is no reason why you should have to accept a black box as a teaching product.

One reason that you need to understand how it works is that you need to decide how much you trust the software to do what it claims it can do. These are your students, and you are turning them over to the care of a tutor. Do you trust the tutor to teach the right concepts and, perhaps more importantly, not to give false or misleading guidance? How much you trust your adaptive technology depends a lot on what it is supposed to do. A multiple choice test question that links incorrect answers with supplemental content is easier to make work right than an essay assessment program that attempts to diagnose student writing problems. Context also matters. We can tolerate tools that are not perfectly accurate in some cases better than we can in others. Most students learn pretty quickly that a Google search will yield some results that aren’t helpful and adjust accordingly. Getting them to understand when to trust a grammar checker and when not to trust it is a lot harder.

More broadly, it is critical to develop a clear and well-articulated position on which teaching functions the software can fulfill and which it can’t in order to defend the value of a real college education and the faculty who deliver it. There is a cultural temptation, fed somewhat by eager vendors and a press that tends toward an excess of techno-optimism, to believe that adaptive learning platforms are the future of education and can be full replacements for teacher-facilitated classes. The root of the problem is not the adaptive technology itself so much as the belief that a “good” education is entirely quantifiable and therefore manageable by computer. When policies to hold schools accountable for student success get reduced to a handful of all-important metrics, there is danger. When the idea that machine-assessed competencies capture everything important that a student should learn in a class, there is danger. In these circumstances, the notion of adaptive learning technologies can be abused as a kind of magic incantation by the reductionists.

The countervailing temptation for faculty, then, is to reject all adaptive learning itself as a fraud and a conspiracy to defund education. That temptation should be resisted. Adaptive technologies can have real value and are not going away. They can free up faculty to spend more time doing what they do best in the classroom—work that is not replicable by a machine. Rejecting these capabilities out-of-hand would risk damaging the credibility of faculty while denying students support that could improve their chances of success. The better approach, from both educational and labor perspectives, is to examine each tool on a case-by-case basis with an open mind, insist on demystifying explanations of how it works, embrace the tools that make educational sense, and think hard about how having them could empower you to be a better teacher and provide your students with richer educational experiences. Don’t be content to merely argue that you can’t be replaced by a machine. That’s a losing strategy. The winning strategy is to prove it.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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12 Responses to What Faculty Should Know About Adaptive Learning

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  2. Corey Davis says:

    This is an excellent summation of adaptive learning technology, it’s uses and how to approach figuring out whether it is a good fit at a classroom, department, or institutional level. I’ve passed it on to my faculty. Thanks for the thoughtful and BALANCED piece.

  3. Laraine says:

    This was a great article.It clearly and concretely described the many ways adaptive technology can be used to enhance a student’s learning. There is only one section I take issue with–and for the record, I’m no longer a full time teacher. In other words, I’m not defending my turf–and it starts here: “There is a cultural temptation, fed somewhat by eager vendors and a press that tends toward an excess of techno-optimism, to believe that adaptive learning platforms are the future of education and can be full replacements for teacher-facilitated classes.”

    In addition to suggesting that “somewhat” profoundly underestimates the way “vendors” are selling educational technology as a replacement for everything from teachers to textbooks (And I do write textbooks, so maybe I am protecting that turf, although I prefer to think not.), there is also a vocal and well-funded corporate reform movement in education, which suggests that technology is much better at measuring students’ achievement than any living, breathing teacher ever could be. I sat through a presentation recently in which the presenter seemed to think that the notion of individualized teaching and assessment was a new concept, which had only arrived on the scene as a result of adaptive technology being available.

    My point is that the countervailing temptation referenced in the next paragraph is completely understandable in the current climate– “to reject all adaptive learning itself as a fraud and a conspiracy to defund education.”

    I actually know very few teachers, none in fact, who think that adaptive learning technology is a fraud. However I know quite a few that believe the promotion of adaptive learning is, in part, being heavily promoted by people who want to “defund” public education, along with the teachers who make up its soul (with students being the heart). I think that countervailing temptation on the part of instructors will be a lot easier to resist when people like Arne Duncan and Bill Gates speak as readily about, not just the virtues, but also the limitations, of adaptive technology as you do here. A pleasure to read.

  4. Nice article, Michael! In Higher Ed we’re seeing fantastic and scalable outcomes with Adapt Courseware’s engaging content and adaptive platform. Like you said, the key is getting the faculty to understand it and use it effectively.

  5. Maha says:

    I am thinking about your earlier post about differentiated engagement, and recognizing that while adaptive software might deal with differing content needs of students, I am unsure it can adapt to student learning styles and motivations, etc. Older students who have enough metacognition can figure out for themselves, usually, how they can learn best. I wonder how we can help younger ones?

    I found this article balanced but would like to see one that spells out more explicitly the roles of teachers (and learning with peers!) beyond what adaptive software does (not for myself, because of course I believe in the important role of teachers, and this role differs by discipline and age and context) as a way to respond to what Laraine mentions as ppl wanting to use adaptive software to de-fund public education

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  7. Sharon says:

    Love this: think hard about how having them could empower you to be a better teacher and provide your students with richer educational experiences.

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