Adaptive Learning’s Potential and Pitfalls

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“Adaptive learning.” Two words that have haunted headlines and press releases ever since I started this job in 2011—and likely even before then. Everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone says they’re doing it too.

But there are plenty of misconceptions and a lack of shared understanding between schools and companies about what “adaptive learning” actually means.

At our SF Edtech Meetup on Feb. 4, we asked six practitioners from the entrepreneur, educator and investor communities to share their joys, pains and lessons learned from building and working with these tools. Here’s what they had to say.

Testing Adaptive Learning’s Potential

Adaptive tests can offer a better understanding of how students understand different subjects, regardless of their grade level. “Adaptive learning systems help us meet students where they are, honor their strengths and weaknesses, and create experiences that are much more suited to their needs,” says Elena Sanina, Senior Manager of Blended Learning at Aspire Public Schools.

Some tools can flag skills where students need more practice before advancing. Unlike traditional instruction, which “sees assessment as a way to do an autopsy on what you didn’t learn and moves on to the next subject,” says Esther Tricoche, Associate Partner at NewSchools Venture Fund, “adaptive learning uses assessments as a formative gauge for where we need to move next based on what you don’t know.”

These tools can be powerful in transforming teaching practices. Jennie Dougherty, Associate Director of Innovation at KIPP Bay Area, says her colleagues use adaptive assessments to “inform instructional use and design, along with time, space and curriculum.” These tests can also highlight teachers in high-performing classrooms who may be “using edtech programs in ways that companies didn’t tell us to.”

But Dougherty advises caution before making every student take these tests: “Try telling a five-year-old before you give them an adaptive assessment, that when [he or she] gets it right, it gets harder.” Students—especially young ones—feel a certain measure of pride when they can solve test problems easily. Adaptive tests, which often focus on pinpointing weaknesses, can damage that motivation.

That’s why students need to be mentally prepared for adaptive assessments, says Tricoche. “There’s some growth mindset that has to be developed for students to be able to use these tests.”

Promise Versus Reality

Adaptive tests can help teachers understand and address the varying proficiency levels in their classrooms. A third-grade teacher, for instance, may find a student who can do fifth-grade math but reads at a first-grade level.

In an ideal scenario, students will be working on assignments and activities that best address their different skill levels. Unfortunately, Sanina says, this potential is tempered by the reality of the current education system, in which students progress according to their age groups.

“We have one system that lets teachers focus on differentiating instruction, lets students work at their own level with content that meets them where they are.” she shares. “We have another system that moves students based on grades, age and how well they did at the assessment at the end of the year.”

To strike a balance, she urges developers to build tools that incorporate grade-level standards and allow teachers the power to assign content at their discretion.

There are also concerns of overuse of adaptive tools—which usually involves students’ attention focused on device screens—detracts from the social aspects of learning. This is a worry raised among educators in schools that serve English language learners, for whom speaking, listening and collaborating plays a critical role in language acquisition.

Data Deluge

Angela Estrella, a professional development associate and instructional coach at Stanford University’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, has four years of data on how her elementary-grade daughter has been using adaptive learning platforms. Her biggest takeaway so far? “Being able to predict which days she has a substitute teacher,” she jests. “I see it now: adaptive learning as a solution to the substitute teacher shortage.”

Jokes aside, Estrella believes that not all data is useful; some may even be misleading. “Does having access to all this data empower parents, or does it play into our fears of all the great expectations we have for our kids?”

Just because edtech tools can capture every single interaction doesn’t mean they ought to. “Not every click needs to count, and sometimes you need a clean slate,” says Estrella. “I’m concerned about the large amount of the data that is being collected on our kids and how it’s being used to shape learning trajectories.”

Data itself should not prescribe how students should learn. “There’s so much potential that we lose when we just think of student learning in terms of data and technology,” says Sanina. “For every ounce of technology you need eight, 10 or 20 ounces of humanity” to make the tools work.

How Companies Must Adapt

Edtech companies “rarely reflect the demographics of the students that they’re serving,” observes James Harrell, Talent Development Manager at Oakland Unified School District. And that can present an “uncomfortable reality” when privileged communities offer solutions to “high-trauma” communities, such as schools in West Oakland where he works.

Some of the braggadocio that companies exude when selling their tools can strike a raw nerve. Often, they come on too strong in describing how bad things are and how their product is the silver bullet. “When you suddenly tell people they’re failing, and they’re not good at their jobs, that brings a lot of emotions and makes things very difficult,” says Harrell.

He challenges any edtech developer to “reflect and discuss systems of oppression, and how their products are addressing them.” A first step that any company can take, Harrell suggests, is to include teachers and students as part of the advisory board to discuss these issues.

Every educational tool must be designed with input from teachers and students, reminds Johann Larusson, head of the Center for Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning at Pearson. Likening adaptive learning to a Rubik’s cube, he believes the education technology industry is currently just scratching the surface of what’s possible.

“Are there 43 quintillion ways of doing adaptive learning?” Larusson asks. “Perhaps; I have no idea. But I know you’re not going to get one of those things correct if you design the technology top-down and pay less attention to who your stakeholders are.”

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