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CAEL Pathways Blog

The Growth of Adaptive Learning

The basic principles involved in adaptive learning are as old as education itself. Think of a student solving a math problem on the chalkboard while the teacher encourages him to consider the next step or find his error.

During the 20th century, adaptive learning received a boost from behavioral psychologists who promised that when educational stimuli interacted with and adapted to the student, learning was more effective. But it was not until the technological advances of the 21st century that adaptive learning began to see significant growth.

What is Adaptive Learning?

As the term is commonly used today, adaptive learning involves the use of computers to provide an interactive learning experience. The computer can determine which material to present based on the student's previous responses or mastery of a task. Based on the student's answers, the computer is programmed to intervene at just the right moment or offer the right material at the right time. To illustrate, suppose the following question is posed:

Simplify 3x + 2x + 2y

An answer of "7xy" would be an indication that the student does not grasp the concept of combining variables. The program could then produce instructional material on the subject. On the other hand, if the student answered correctly, the program would continue with the lesson.

Adaptive Learning for Skills Training

Anyone one who has ever had to design a "one-size-fits-all" training program knows the difficulties involved. When used to deliver skills training, adaptive learning technology can permit every student to receive the most suitable type of material in the best order. However, the same learning objective will be delivered to all.

To illustrate, suppose employees are taking a course in ethics that is designed to teach them how to respond to the discovery of unethical behavior by a colleague.

An employee with a degree in human resources or accounting may quickly demonstrate an understanding of what constitutes unethical behavior, so the program might skip to case studies. A recently hired receptionist, however, might need more information on the definition of unethical behavior and how to identify the different types. Therefore, the program would provide more background material before proceeding to the case studies.

Once the course is completed, all participants should similarly be able to define, identify, and respond to unethical behavior.

The Growth of Adaptive Learning for Business Training

In recent years, businesses have found that they need to focus more on outcomes than inputs. That is, they have identified the skills and knowledge that employees need to perform their jobs effectively, but they recognize that not every employee achieves mastery in the same manner. Increasingly, organizations are using adaptive learning technologies to provide standardized outcomes in the most efficient manner.

Many companies are having providers turn printed training materials into adaptive learning modules for offline and/or online training.

Additional Uses of Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning is especially suitable for distance learning and self-paced online courses. Many online educational institutions incorporate at least some aspects in their courses, such as providing automated answers to student questions or automatically evaluating student responses to a new concept to determine whether the student is ready to progress to the next concept.

In recent years, mainstream textbook publishers have begun incorporating adaptive learning software into their online editions. Students can be tested to prove mastery of the material, "tutored" to improve their understanding, or offered supplemental materials. Instructors have the option of adding material or setting their own priorities. The modules provide instructors with detailed feedback on class trends as well as individual students.

In Conclusion

The growth in adaptive learning is due in part to a growing realization that standardized outcomes are best achieved through non-standardized delivery of educational material. Adaptive learning makes the student an active participant rather than a passive "member of the audience." As technology continues to advance, expect to see adaptive learning used for more purposes and by more business organizations.


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