Adaptive Learning: No One-Size-Fits-All Solution, but Plenty of Approaches

Adaptive Learning: No One-Size-Fits-All Solution, but Plenty of Approaches

There’s no hotter segment in education right now than adaptive learning. What a game-changer it would be if we could tailor the learning experience based on a student’s progress.

But despite its lofty goals, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s session held last month in Seattle, adaptive learning conversation did not focus on whether “adaptive learning is the golden bullet” or “How many students we have saved so far.”

Instead, the top minds in the field met around the questions: “What are we seeing? / What are the issues?” and “What are the next steps we might take?”

The collegiality between (supposedly) rabid, competing vendors was constructive.  There is the feeling that we have moved beyond a zero-sum game and that, given the massive challenges, there is no one-size-fits all solution.

My first meta-conclusion is that while we are lumping pretty much anything under the “Adaptive” banner, there are a variety of approaches.

It appears that no two companies are approaching this challenge in exactly the same way. There are providers whose platforms provide:

  • Mnemonic cues to prompt student retention of information
  • Virtual lab / simulation,
  • Personalization tools
  • Micro-adaptive and macro-adaptive systems
  •  Elements of gamification

and just plain rich content. None are without value; none will, in isolation, solve all issues in higher ed., online education.

It may even be counter-productive to over-define. What might be more helpful would be a solid matrix or rubric that can assess course intrinsic motivation or stickiness. An engagement matrix could measure how likely a course, in and of itself, is to keep student attention.

Cognitive science can provide a lot of the guidance and grounding for this. Is the text appropriately ‘chunked?’ Do graphics or multimedia support the text or distract from it? And, is immediate, corrective feedback being provided for the students to guide and encourage them?

The realm of gamification has the best language to frame this metric. While he will hate me for saying this, my friend Dr. Dick Clark’s work overlaps with the language of Karl Kapp, Mihalyi Cszikscentmihayi and even Jesse Schell who all talk about engagement and “hooks” to keep ‘subjects’ (gamers, athletes, employees, and — why not —  students) – fixated and encouraged to keep going, keep failing, persevering to reach the next level, or to nudge ahead of a friend on the leaderboard. Not one solution, one size. Implement, measure, try, tweak. Be flexible, but gather data on what evidence tells us.

We might have to think about re-naming this work, given how confused and polarized people are by the term and the concept of “gamification.” Like saying “Voldemort[JS1] ” aloud, “Beetlejuice” three times or channeling Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name,” “gamification” both inflates the balloon and lets the air out of the room at the same time. We need a new term; so here is a matrix that indicates parameters by which one can measure a course’s potential degree of engagement or stickiness. Insert your own Likert scale across the X-axis, here are my Y’s for engaging – gamified-  content. The course presents with:

  1. (Simple) rules for student participation.
  2. Clear goals.
  3. Appropriate level of challenge — one requires concentration.
  4. Peer engagement (cooperation or competition or both.)
  5. Immediate, corrective feedback.
  6. A narrative of some sort — can be prescribed by instructor or developed by the students (collectively or individually.)
  7.  An aesthetic theme – can be retro, can be fantasy, or can be personal to each student.
  8. Reduced fear of failure – encouragement to “have a go” and learn as you go.
  9. A sense of user control (“my choices.”)
  10.  The game is intrinsically woven into the learning (not bolted on artificially.)

These criteria are pulled from commonalities presented in the work of Karl Kapp, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Roger Callois and others in this field. Adaptive learning certainly helps with a number of these elements; depending on the platform, they can raise a score on (1), (2), (3), (5), maybe (7), definitely (8) and (9). This is the power of adaptive learning – it accentuates elements that make courses engaging or sticky, reducing my list of ten to a more achievable list of 3-4 remaining challenges that we can perhaps ask providers to add, or we can add  in ourselves.

Analysis of what works in engaging people with game environments suggests that well-implemented adaptive learning courses can move us toward a goal of increased student engagement (with course materials) that evidence indicates will enhance their learning leading to positive outcomes (retention, completion).

Conversation developed at the Gates session that surfaced another major issue that I believe we are all avoiding.  In my Part 2 reflection I will discuss an issue that is absolutely pivotal to online success as a learning medium. More to follow after I catch up on sleep deprivation. Be warned.

About Kevin Bell

Kevin Bell is the executive director for Online Curriculum Development and Deployment at Northeastern University's College of Professional Studies. He leads Northeastern's efforts toward the goal of high-quality, professional online programs based on industry and academic standards. He works closely with senior leadership to ensure that the Northeastern University Online strategy aligns with the College's five-year vision and with the University's academic and regional campus goals.


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