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When one thinks of a school lesson, the image that comes to mind is one of 10-20 students (maybe more) seated in a medium-sized classroom, a teacher standing in front of them explaining a concept, and a board behind the teacher covered in scribbles and diagrams, and formulas. 

While this scenario is commonplace in education, it’s not the best way to help students learn. The reason is simple: not everyone learns the same way. Some people learn visually, others learn by hearing, and some people find that they remember new concepts better when they do hands-on work.

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The teaching approach described above is a one-size-fits-all approach that assumes that all students in the class have the same learning style and can comprehend new concepts at the same pace. In reality, learners have been forced, over decades, to adjust to this teaching model that prioritizes outcomes over the individual development of students. 

That’s why the education system needs to adopt adaptive learning techniques. Unlike the traditional teaching method, adaptive learning focuses on the needs of each student and involves creating a personalized teaching approach to help people learn. 

In this piece, we’ll explore what this revolutionary teaching method is, why teachers should use it with their students, and how to implement it in the classroom.

Skip ahead:

Understanding Adaptive Learning

Picture this scenario:

A Physics class of 30 students is about to learn a new concept called elasticity. It has been established, however, that 10 of them prefer to learn visually. Another 10 students learn best when they read and write. And the last 10 prefer to learn by doing or experiencing what they’re being taught. 

So rather than take the conventional one-size-fits-all teaching approach, the school divides the class into three groups based on learning style and hires three teachers that specialize in teaching each of these styles. Each teacher creates teaching materials, assignments, and projects tailored specifically to their group’s strengths, so that no one is forced to adapt to a general learning style. 

This scenario is an example of adaptive learning.

Adaptive learning, or adaptive teaching, is the creation of learning experiences that address the needs of individual learners through personalized lessons, practice activities, and assessments. These custom learning experiences capitalize on each student’s strengths and aim to solve their trouble spots. 

The problem with adaptive learning, however, is that there’s a limit to how many tutors one can hire to teach people with unique learning styles. In the scenario above, there were 30 students and three learning styles — which was manageable. What happens when there are 150 students and seven learning styles? 

That’s where adaptive learning technology comes in. 

Adaptive learning software uses artificial intelligence and computer algorithms to interact with learners, determine their preferred learning styles, and deliver personalized learning experiences to address the unique needs of each learner. The software collects data about students’ understanding of a concept or skill in real-time and adjusts the learning path of that student based on their performance, which results in improved learning. 

What’s more, adaptive learning software makes it easy to create nonlinear learning paths for a large number of students at a time, so schools don’t have to hire a tutor for each learner to provide the best possible learning experience for each student.  

Benefits of adaptive learning in education

Adaptive learning has many benefits for both teachers and students. Here are some of them: 

  1. Personalized instruction and differentiation

Adaptive learning involves creating personalized learning materials and instruction based on each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and learning style. Because of this, students are able to learn at their own pace and comprehend lessons more easily. 

  1. Enhanced student engagement and motivation

Adaptive learning motivates students and increases their engagement because the lessons and practice activities closely match their interests and needs. A student who learns best through videos will be more eager to learn a topic or work on a project if it’s presented in a video-based format. If the teacher gives the student a text-based course, they may not be motivated to read and understand it because the lesson’s format isn’t what they’re used to.       

  1. Continuous assessment and feedback

With traditional teaching methods, learners go through lessons with a surface-level understanding of what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong. Adaptive learning technology, however, gathers data in real-time about each student’s performance, knowledge gaps, and learning style. 

This data helps instructors get a better understanding of their students’ strengths, the areas students are struggling with, and what they can do to strengthen their weak spots. This learning method also gives teachers the opportunity to give feedback in real-time, even if it means changing the path the learner is taking, e.g. providing more training material or practice activities when necessary.

Implementing adaptive education approaches

To implement adaptive education approaches, here are the steps you should take: 

  1. Choose the right adaptive learning platforms and tools 

Adaptive learning works best when you incorporate software into the learning process. The problem, however, is that there are tons of adaptive learning tools in the market right now. So you’ll need to do research into some viable options and determine the one that’s right for your budget and has the necessary features to help you deliver stellar learning experiences to your students.

Two important features you should look out for are: 

  • Learning analytics features that collect, analyze, and interpret student data to improve the teaching process and optimize learning outcomes. 
  • The ability to create interactive learning materials that incorporate multimedia elements like video, audio, interactive quizzes, and simulations to create a more dynamic learning experience.

These features enable you to give your students helpful feedback and make informed decisions about their education.

  1. Teacher roles and training in adaptive education

Teachers don’t simply disappear when they implement adaptive learning tools in the teaching process. They still have a lot of work to do for their students, including: 

  • Identifying students’ unique needs. Teachers interpret the data that adaptive learning technologies collect, and determine what each student needs to achieve their academic goals. 
  • Providing instructions and additional support. Once they’ve identified individual student needs, teachers provide instructions and additional support to students who need it. Per adaptive learning principles, these instructions and supplementary services have to align with the unique needs of each student. This extra support may include peer tutoring, team teaching, teaching assistants, and interpreters to foster collaboration, communication, and team-building in the classroom. 
  • Adapt activities. Whatever practice activity a teacher wants to assign to students, they’ll have to adapt it to each student’s needs, preferences, and learning style. This increases the likelihood that students with different abilities will have equal opportunity to participate in the activity. 

While there are many ways to individualize practice activities, there are criteria that the adaptation has to meet, including: 

  • Promoting interaction, cooperation, competition, and reciprocity among students
  • Meeting the needs of all students in the class 
  • Improving (or maintaining) the self-esteem of all student
  • Encouraging physical activity for students, as reasonably possible 
  • Providing a safe learning experience for all participants
  1. Integrating adaptive learning into curriculum design

After identifying students’ needs and creating individualized activities for them, teachers have to include these elements in the curriculum. This may mean designing a new curriculum for each student, or creating a specific curriculum for a group of students with similar needs and/or learning styles. 

Case studies: successful applications of adaptive learning in education

In a report, Adaptive Courseware: New Models to Support Student Learning, by Achieving the Dream and Every Learner Everywhere (ELE), seven institutions including Miami Dade College, Houston Community College, and Indian River State College adopted adaptive learning tools to address high failure rates in core courses, particularly among marginalized student populations. 

Before long, the faculty, staff, and college leaders started seeing the results of the implementation of this technology in their education system. The schools report a greater number of students completing targeted courses and higher grades within specific courses. They praised the adaptive learning tools for: ‘

  • Promoting skill-building through guided practice, which gave students the confidence to exert control over their own learning
  • Helping faculty members identify students who needed extra support with certain courses
  • Introducing key concepts to students before they came to class, which made them more engaged and prepared for practice activities, i.e. the flipped classroom model
  • Reinforcing prerequisite skills and complex procedures in mathematics, grammar, business, and social sciences

The students themselves credited the adaptive learning tools with helping them engage with course material at their own pace and master key concepts, while giving them feedback on their progress. 

Challenges and considerations in adaptive learning and education

Implementing adaptive learning in an institution, be it a school or a company, can be challenging. If you’re planning to adopt adaptive learning techniques, here are some things you should consider: 

  1. Technological infrastructure and access

Implementing adaptive learning technologies requires robust technological infrastructure, including broadband internet, sufficient computing resources, and adequate data storage capacity. Instructional designers also have to make sure that all learning materials are compatible with the different devices and platforms students use to learn. 

Not only is this logistically challenging, but it’s also very expensive for educational institutions, especially those with limited resources and those located in areas with low technological adoption rates.

  1. Ethical considerations and student privacy

AI-based adaptive learning platforms collect and analyze huge amounts of personal information, including behavior patterns, learning progress, and preferences. Some AI algorithms are also trained on extensive datasets, which can contain biases. In adaptive learning systems, these biases can seep into personalized assessments, feedback, or recommendations — which may make it seem as though students aren’t equal.

For all learners to have equitable and pleasant learning experiences, you need to secure data storage, establish data privacy policies, and teach students to have a moral compass when dealing with AI-based academic tools. You also need to constantly monitor and address algorithmic bias, and work with stakeholders to identify potential issues and implement preventive measures.

Having open discussions with stakeholders can provide diverse perspectives on the development of ethical guidelines for adaptive learning.

  1. Teacher-student interaction and support

Adaptive learning systems are meant to support — not replace — teachers’ contributions to the learning experience. But in many cases, the use of these platforms decreases discourse between teachers and students. Students may not feel comfortable or confident enough to ask their teacher for help. Worse still, they may feel like interacting with and getting support from their teacher isn’t necessary anymore because of the new platform.

Before implementing adaptive learning platforms, make it clear to your students that those platforms are only there to assist you and them in the learning process. Encourage them to discuss with you and ask questions about the lessons, the tool, and any difficulties they may have.

  1. Implementation costs and resource allocation

Although adaptive learning systems are cost-effective in the long run, they usually require high upfront costs to implement, which will likely take up a huge of the school’s budget. 

The school’s administrators will have to weigh the pros and cons to decide whether allocating available resources toward developing and implementing an adaptive learning system is worth it or not (we say it is!).

Best practices for successful adaptive learning implementation

As you plan to implement adaptive learning methods with your students, here are some best practices to keep in mind: 

  1. Set clear goals and expectations 

Before designing an adaptive learning system, you need to have a clear idea of the goals and objectives you want your learners to achieve. Ask yourself:

  • What skills and competencies do they need to master?
  • How will you assess your students’ performance and progress?
  • How will you align your students’ learning objectives with their curriculum? 

Answering these questions will set the direction and scope of your adaptive learning system, and ensure that it meets your students’ needs. 

  1. Aligning adaptive learning with educational objectives

Once you’ve set the goals you want to achieve regarding student performance, ensure that your adaptive learning strategies align with these goals. So if your goal is to increase student engagement with lessons, learning activities, and projects, make sure your adaptive learning strategy includes creating learning materials that students will want to engage with. And if your goal is to improve the performance of low-performing students, find out why those students aren’t performing well and provide additional support to boost their performance.

  1. Monitoring and analyzing data for continuous improvement

The data that adaptive learning tools gather are invaluable, as they show the progress of each student — where they’re performing well, where they’re performing poorly, how they approach lessons and activities, and much more. Tracking and analyzing this data can help teachers figure out ways to continually improve their curriculum and personalize the learning paths for students in ways that they appreciate. 

  1. Collaborate with stakeholders (students, administrators, parents)

Even though adaptive learning software will track all the student data, teachers must collaborate with students, administrators, and parents to ensure that students achieve their goals. Administrators should send introductory emails to teachers explaining the plan to adopt adaptive learning software and outlining the benefits and capabilities of this new approach. 

Teachers, in turn, should explain to students’ parents — either by mail or in-person meetings — why the school is introducing new technology into the classroom. Not only does this keep parents up to date on the state of their children’s education, but it also gives them the confidence to ask questions and actively participate in their children’s learning process. 

As you use the software with your students, be sure to regularly inform administrators and parents of student performance and progress, including any major changes you make to their learning paths.

The future of adaptive learning and education

Adaptive learning software is AI-based, which means that it’s evolving and getting better every day. Below are some trends and innovations that we’ll likely see in education as artificial intelligence and computer algorithms get more advanced. 

  1. Improved personalization

As artificial intelligence continues to advance, adaptive learning tools will become even better at tracking students’ performance and delivering customized learning experiences.

Neural networks and natural language processing capabilities will get more proficient, allowing adaptive learning platforms to better understand individual learners’ needs, pain points, preferences, and learning styles, and to provide targeted, yet helpful, learning paths for them to take.

  1. Better support of competency-based education

Instead of the traditional measures of academic progress, adaptive learning platforms support competency-based education models that allow people to master specific skills (or competencies) at their own pace, no matter the learning environment they’re in. 

As these education models become more popular, different institutions will adopt adaptive learning platforms to create personalized, self-paced learning opportunities that focus on skill development and real-world application. 

  1. Increase in collaborative learning

Many adaptive learning platforms are designed to cater to individual students only. But as schools and other institutions understand the benefits of collaborative learning, adaptive learning software will likely evolve to cater to this learning approach. These tools will contain more features that support cohort learning, group activities, virtual learning communities, and peer feedback — all of which allow more interaction and spread of knowledge among learners.

  1. More access to quality education

As adaptive learning platforms gain more traction, the chances of them being able to democratize access to good education on a global scale increases. When schools all over the world start adopting adaptive learning measures, a greater number of people — including those in developing countries and marginalized communities — will get access to high-quality education. Not only will this improve each learner’s individual life, but it will also make for more educated communities and better economies.

  1. Increase in mobile learning

With the rise of mobile device use, more EdTech companies will start making adaptive learning platforms that are optimized for mobile devices. This will allow students to learn at any time, no matter where they are. 

Empowering students through adaptive learning and education

Adaptive learning is a trend that will have a positive and far-reaching impact on the education system as we know it. In addition to making educational opportunities more available to people of diverse backgrounds, it will also make the teaching and learning process more engaging, productive, and rewarding. 

Students will understand concepts better because their lessons are designed to cater specifically to their needs and learning style. They’ll also understand the best ways to solve problems and learn new things on their own, no matter the level of education they’re in. Their new mindsets will prepare them to take on new responsibilities and build budding careers in any field they choose.

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