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The promises of adaptive learning

Adaptive learning is polymorphous. Some of it is familiar to all of us from school, even from a pre-digital age. For example, I remember the glorious two weeks of third grade when a substitute let me learn fractions from a book with a classmate named Ryan while the rest of my class moped through their times tables. I also remember the astronomy professor who spent three hours with me going over the basic physics that I did not understand before our first midterm.

This sort of individualized instruction, though, is becoming harder and harder for a number of different reasons. Not all students will seek help, and as class sizes grow larger it is harder for even the best instructors to keep track of individual needs. This has led to an increased focus on digital adaptive learning tools. A recent report by Education Growth Advisors divides digital adaptive learning into two categories: those that offer primarily performance metrics and a dashboard for instructors’ use (that is, to help them keep track of their students) and those that also offer adaptive learning modules. Like video games or the electronic versions of the GRE, such modules adjust the type and level of their questions to match a student’s answers.

Educational publishers have been quick to adopt adaptive learning software into course packages at all levels. Representatives are excited about the potential to track students as they progress through a given subject. On the horizon are projects that will allow the software to identify not just educational deficits, but the reasons behind them – in other words, what it is about physics or Spanish verbs that leaves a student confused.

Administrators also have a role to play. It’s particularly important for IT officers to be aware of the various products on the market and to choose the best fit for their school(s). This includes targeted selection of student information systems and learning management systems in addition to potential investments in educational software. Technology professionals are often tasked with decoding the data – whether that means looking at an individual student’s performance across multiple courses, an entire cohort’s performance, or subgroup analyses.

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About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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