Adaptive Learning

I’ve recently come across the concept of adaptive learning.

The concept is a classroom that uses a system to modify the presentation of content in response to student performance. The system relies heavily on analytics to tailor delivery of material.  It’s a method developed so that instructors can stop “teaching to the middle” (which has the potential to bore students with greater skill and cause anxiety for students who are playing catch-up).


The theory of using analytics to deliver specific content to a user is nothing new – Amazon and Netflix have made a living off of recommending products to you based on your preferences.  The thought of using this in the classroom to deliver learning is incredibly interesting.

Adaptive learning has been designed to:

  1. Serve as a personal tutor to each student
  2. Adapt the sequencing of curriculum and associated learning experiences
  3. Individualize the pace of learning
  4. Regulate the cognitive load for the student
  5. Engage students in learning through gaming

While I can definitely get behind all of those things, I really need to see it in action as I’m having difficulty imagining teaching a college curriculum within the confines of the system.  The question that remains for me is summed up nicely by this tweet:

I’m going to continue to look more into adaptive learning systems like Smart Sparrow and Knewton to see if there’s any chance of incorporating these methods into my practice.

The concept isn’t without it’s critics, however.  Dr. George Siemens, the originator of the connectivism learning theory, says that adaptive learning focuses too much on product skills and low-level memorization.  It does very little to promote process attributes like thinking creatively, self-regulating, goal setting, and solving complex problems.  He argues that most product skills will eventually be automated and that adaptive learning systems rob learners of metacognitive abilities – the key attributes needed for lifelong learning.

This is another issue in which we can use technology in the classroom but without a solid foundation of andragogy, the potential to do more harm than good exists.  It’s up to each of us as instructors to evaluate technology and decide whether or not it’s right for us and our learners.


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