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Clearing the hurdles to adaptive learning

Overcoming six challenges encountered in adopting adaptive learning
University Business, September 2016
Adaptive learning uses computers for interactive teaching, with the materials adapted based on each student’s needs.
Adaptive learning uses computers for interactive teaching, with the materials adapted based on each student’s needs.

Adaptive learning, which brings the benefits of one-on-one tutoring to large numbers of students with instruction tailored to the learner, has garnered attention since the 1970s.

But while it’s a common topic in education circles and technology is now widely available to make it happen, translating traditional lectures to an adaptive learning format takes time, expertise and budget dollars. In other words, adopting adaptive learning is arduous.

Broadly, adaptive learning involves computers being used for interactive teaching, with the materials adapted based on each student’s needs, as their responses demonstrate.

Ariel Anbar, director of the Center for Education through Exploration at Arizona State University, says the concept has several levels. On one level, courseware has adaptive feedback to what the student is doing, says Anbar, who wrote the adaptive learning course, Habworlds, which has been taken by more than 1,500 students.

“The second level is where pathways change depending on what the student does. And the third is where the instructor adapts courseware based on the experience they have with their students.”

Adaptive learning systems also get to know a student’s preferences and learning style. “If a student does better on a test after a video, the system will show that student more video,” says Thomas Cavanagh, associate vice president of distributed learning at the University of Central Florida.

Want to make a smooth transition from traditional to adaptive learning? Here are six challenges to implementation and what early adopters have done to clear those hurdles.

Challenge 1: Moving ahead without strong evidence

At North Carolina State University, students took a recent entry-level psychology class either in the traditional in-person format or via an online adaptive learning so outcomes could be compared.

“Based on the research we did, there was no difference. Students did no better or worse,” says Jeff Braden, dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, who supervised the test program, developed with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Fulcrum Labs.

Yet Braden remains a proponent of adaptive learning. The method moves teaching closer to the active, collaborative approach recommended today, he says.

Online coursework suits large classes. And students, who don’t all fit the full-time, young adult mold, can file assignments anywhere, anytime. If nothing else, the online content is replacing traditional textbooks, and access is often less expensive than print.

In an early pilot of adaptive learning at Central Florida, students were asked if they spent more time on adaptive or traditional coursework. Their answer: adaptive. Asked if they would take another adaptive course, “the answers were overwhelmingly ‘yes,’ ” says Cavanagh. “The students felt they were spending their time valuably.”

The lecture model at Arizona State has a 20 percent dropout/failure/withdrawal rate—compared to 6 percent for adaptive learning classes, says Dale Johnson, manager of the university’s EdPlus adaptive program. “If we can do that across other disciplines, that is tremendous.”

Challenge 2: Finding resources for development

Adaptive learning is hardly an inexpensive endeavor. Some colleges have funded their own work in this area, and some have worked with partners such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program, or ALMAP.

Anbar’s Center for Education through Exploration partners with the Gates Foundation and Smart Sparrow, provider of a platform that allows institutions to create active and adaptive e-learning courseware.

Other schools look inward for funding. “We have been bootstrapping it ourselves, which is maybe why we have not scaled to the level” of some of the other universities, says Cavanagh at Central Florida. UCF offers three adaptive learning courses—general psychology, college algebra and pathophysiology—and many other classes have some adaptive learning components.

Arizona State also had no initial grant funding when its math program introduced adaptive learning.

“We always told ourselves that if we retain students at a higher rate, make them more successful, they come back semester after semester,” says Phil Regier, university dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus at Arizona State. “That is a revenue stream we wouldn’t have if they quit.”

The university now works with several vendors to offer adaptive learning classes.

As for the investment required, Johnson says Arizona State’s spend averaged $100,000 for each of the last three systems built from scratch in partnership with vendors.

Breaking that down, about $50,000 was spent on faculty time. Teams of two to four faculty members worked with a provider on content, report development and system testing. Grants did cover a large portion of these costs over the past few years, he adds.

The remaining $50,000 covers operating costs for project managers, instructional designers, video producers, graphic designers, systems integrators and administrative personnel.

For an extra fee, Johnson notes, providers can often manage installation of a course.

Challenge 3: Winning over instructors and students

The future of learning will move teaching from delivering information to managing learning, says NC State’s Braden. “The adaptive learning model delivers richer data to track students. This changes my role to the guide on the side—this change can be threatening to those who have mastered the ‘stand and deliver’ method.”

Arizona State’s Johnson says campus administrators must develop a culture that encourages instructors to become leaders of an active learning environment. Content is delivered online, where adaptive technology helps a student learn concepts. Students then gather in smaller groups for active learning such as lab work, putting what they learned online into practice.

Faculty who will teach the adaptive learning courses must be in place and on board with the program from the start, he adds. Training is also key. Arizona State also offers instructors a full day of training, twice a year, on how to use the technology.

The institution involved an instructional designer, project managers, instructional technologist and business managers from the start. “You don’t want to dictate; you want buy-in,” Regier says.

Students need to adjust, too. Cavanagh of Central Florida recalls a group of students who were dissatisfied with their grades on an evaluation in the adaptive learning patho-physiology class.

The instructor told them to go back and repeat the test until they raised their grades—they were (happily) surprised they could. “Adaptive learning is about mastery,” he says.

Challenge 4: Selecting the right team or provider

UCF faculty spent a good amount of time over one semester building its three adaptive courses. “The level of effort and complexity is a barrier to scale,” Cavanagh says. “And faculty are never done. They enhance, add content and questions. The more you work on it, the richer and deeper it gets.”

The university was able to scale adaptive learning by creating a personalized learning team to help instructors build courses, allowing faculty to remain focused on their areas of expertise, adds Cavanagh.

Purchasing is the answer for many universities. Vendors such as Fulcrum Labs, Smart Sparrow and Cengage supply programs users can modify. “You need the toolkits so you can author courses that are sophisticated, and that you can get into and modify,” Arizona State’s Anbar says.

Challenge 5: Dealing with extensive data

Adaptive learning offers data every day about all students: when they logged in, how long they were on, what they did, what they repeated, and more. It is up to the instructors to find the data points they value most.

NC State’s Thomas Stokes, a graduate student instructor, participated in adaptive learning psychology program research before actually teaching the class. He decided in advance what data would be most meaningful to him before he looked at the vendor’s variables.

“I could name 10 or 12 variables and found the closest matches in the vendor’s data. You get a slew of information, but you have to be smart with what you do with it.”

Providers’ systems will display quantitative information visually on a dashboard.

“Adaptive learning generates thousands of data points,” says Arizona State’s Regier. “Those can be used to improve the system itself, and also to improve the performance of the student, not just in that class, but across classes. The system knows the problems the student had in the first year.”

Challenge 6: Understanding that adaptive learning isn’t a magic bullet

Adaptive learning requires some assistance and guidance from instructors, although a program can go a long way in walking students through basic concepts on its own. Another reality to note: Some aspects of learning will never be measured with any algorithm.

Tom Evans, program manager for open learning at The Ohio State University, counsels faculty and helps them figure out how they want to present course material. For, instance, how effective will adaptive learning be in subjects that are more qualitative in nature, such as humanities courses?

Learning should not be retrofitted to fit technology, says Evans, but available technology should be evaluated for how it can enhance learning.

Arizona State’s Anbar participates in online messages boards where students provide honest feedback about how well adaptive learning is working. Learning via these courses is available to more students than ever before, drawing them into the material in new ways.

“This technology allows you to amplify teaching, but you still need to be there, physically and metaphorically in terms of the content,” Anbar says. “Adaptive learning makes your reach bigger. Adaptive learning enhances the ability of people to interact in direct and indirect ways.”

Provider perspective:

What is the biggest roadblock to wider, quicker adoption of adaptive learning in higher education?

“Lack of awareness. Most instructors don’t know exactly what adaptive learning is or how they can take advantage of it—the term is often tossed around without enough context. Institutions can help drive awareness and adoption of adaptive learning technology with programs to educate faculty, incentivize taking action and support campus innovators ”

—Dror Ben-Naim, CEO, SmartSparrow

“Adaptive programs change the way instructors teach. These programs allow students to demonstrate mastery and answer questions so an instructor can diagnose weaknesses as they go, and adjust the syllabus accordingly.[They] have to trust the technology and the data derived from it. The biggest barrier is getting instructors to have a level of comfort with using this technology as part of their practice and instructional style.”

—Jason Jordan, vice president for higher education markets, Knewton

“The availability of credible, longitudinal efficacy and outcome research studies. Adaptive learning has, unfortunately, turned into a buzzword, which only fuels its obscurity and true meaning.This, coupled with some vendors overstating its claims, both alienate and create a general distrust with faculty and business administrators wanting to adopt adaptive learning.”

—Patrick Weir, CEO, Fulcrum Labs

“We have to help everyone better understand how to use adaptive learning and how to leverage it: how to implement it and apply it in the right way so students and instructors get what they want out of their courses. The question we should be answering is, How do we get more students and instructors to use the digital products available to them to improve their experiences? Adaptive learning should be one of the tools to help us do that.”

—Erin Joyner, senior vice president and manager for social sciences, humanities, and business, Cengage

Barb Freda is a North Carolina-based writer.

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