Failing Forward With Adaptive Learning in Higher Ed

Failing Forward With Adaptive Learning in Higher Ed


When Michael S. Conner, digital liberal arts specialist at Grinnell College, saw the possible benefits to students that could be accrued through the adoption of an adaptive learning digital courseware tool, he sent off an inquiry to two dozen faculty members at this small, private liberal arts college in Iowa to see who might be interested in piloting such an online-oriented addition to their face-to-face courses.

He ran into resistance, and he wrote about this experience in a recent EDUCAUSE blog post.

Conner tells EdSurge how the use of adaptive-learning tools offers extraordinarily promising results for more personalized learning and teaching experiences. However, “there is just not a lot of time for faculty members to explore using this, especially when the payoff is not guaranteed, and it (time put in for development) is not going to be considered as far as their performance and/or promotions reviews.”

UMUC Investigates Adaptive-Learning Tools

According to Karen Vignare, former vice provost at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), the prospects for launching a successful adaptive learning and teaching environment requires the development of a solid learning plan, with faculty input; top-notch instructional design support; the utilization of subject matter experts; an appropriate amount of relevant course content, which oftentimes can come from open educational resources; and an understanding of learning technology interoperability. Vignare was lead investigator for a recent investigation into adaptive learning launched in April 2015 by the UMUC Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success (CILSS).

The CILSS investigation has been testing several adaptive-learning platforms in a variety of online courses in various disciplines offered by UMUC, ranging from Introductory Algebra and Business Finance to Effective Writing and History. The full evaluations of these courses are currently in progress, with early results showing that “the more active students were in these systems, the more likely they were successful,” Vignare says. She adds, however, that “student success in the courses with adaptive-learning systems was not different than in a traditional online course at UMUC.” In both Business Finance and Introductory Algebra, for instance, completion rates were not significantly different.

Vignare explains that the full adoption of any successful adaptive-learning platform requires faculty buy-in, institutional expertise and an iterative process that takes a good amount of time. “First of all, most of the digital courseware vendors will tell you that you will see a difference after X—but what is X?” Vignare asks. “Maybe three, maybe four pilots. I am not saying that every tool works, and I am not saying that this is going to be the year of the silver bullet. I think it is also unfair to say that it is not going to work. It is early in terms of courseware, and we need pilots that have lasted a little bit longer than one or two semesters to actually figure out what we are doing.”

Other early results of adaptive-learning platform adoptions at UMUC reveal that these systems facilitate meaningful interactions between instructors and students, as well as deliver, through electronic dashboards, useful information that instructors would not have in a typical online course. Additionally, a relatively small sample of 39 students who completed a survey about their perceptions of adaptive learning platforms had positive reactions, with 79.5 finding them easy to use, 89.7 percent experiencing individualized learning, and 94.9 percent strongly agreeing that adaptive learning strategies were relevant to their learning goals.

Sound Advice

“Learning to Adapt 2.0: The Evolution of Adaptive Learning in Higher Education,” published in April 2016 by Tyton Partners, offers an important general overview about adaptive learning. Co-author and partner at Tyton Partners Gates Bryant explains that adaptive learning “is increasingly less about the actual technology and more about what using the technology means and implies for a lot of potentially more complicated and thorny issues like what’s the design of your course. Has it been designed and structured in a way that has a rigorous sense of competencies or learning objectives and expectations? How might the role of the faculty member change in light of having access to technologies?”

The Tyton Partners' report expands on this notion of figuring out what to do. It lists five important themes facing adaptive learning system adoption and implementation, a good number of recommendations and lessons learned from early adopters, and profiles of 20 digital courseware suppliers identified as having “meaningful traction in higher education.”

Bryant stresses the importance of reorienting adaptive learning toward the idea of adaptive teaching. In other words, adopters must “recognize that the technology can be a tool to enable instructors to coach their students toward success in ways they haven’t been able to do before by providing them with information that they have not had access to before. When done correctly, it also allows them to do this for larger groups of students.”

Vignare adds that “the future of adaptive learning in higher education depends on the commitment level of universities,” adding six key elements necessary for moving toward successful adoption and implementation:

  1. Prepare: take the time to really understand the power of the tool.
  2. Skill up faculty, instructional staff and your technology team.
  3. Pick your courses based on solving problems. (Is content difficult? Would more student practice help? Does immediacy help students?)
  4. Build content maps; and you’ll need more content than you currently have (unless you use pre-packaged content).
  5. Learn to use the dashboard.
  6. Iterate at least three times.

Lessons Learned

Regarding any lessons learned at Grinnell, Conner says he should have been more targeted in his approach instead of just inviting faculty members to explore the tool. “To fully realize the advantages, it takes a strong commitment to design or redesign a whole course—that’s a big ask.”

He clarifies that it would have been more productive to first identify courses with the appropriate structure or content best suited for an adaptive learning platform. The next step would then be to build a strong case to faculty members and offer all the support required. Such support includes providing assistance with the creation of course resources, along with being able to demonstrate what can be used effectively from any and all existing resources, “so that you are not starting at ground zero,” he adds. This way, “the tension that comes with starting from scratch” could possibly be eliminated.

“You have to precisely define what the instructional challenge is you are looking to solve,” Bryant concludes. For example, “a course redesign is a response that one might take in light of a collection of instructional challenges. If the faculty members are in agreement on the reasons for the redesign, then the situation is going to be more conducive toward getting the project off the ground.”

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