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Author: Flower Darby

Adaptive learning is hailed as a means of offering students a personalized education, and thus is being backed by a variety of supporters, including the well-funded Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Implementing adaptive learning systems takes time and effort, but with the proper planning any institution can incorporate adaptive learning into its curriculum.

What is adaptive learning?

Adaptive courseware can take many forms, but the basic idea is the same across all platforms: each student receives a customized learning experience tailored to meet his or her needs. The system adapts to student understanding, providing additional explanations, more and different practice problems, topics to challenge students, or remediation as needed.

Good teachers have always done this. If it's clear that students aren't getting it, you slow down and find another way to explain the concept. You offer another example, an illustration to help students make sense of the idea, or another way of presenting the problem to help students take the steps necessary to solve it. In an ideal world, teachers would sit next to every student and work one-on-one to ensure understanding. But as educators know, this is not possible at scale.

Cue adaptive courseware. The promise is that this technology will provide that individualized learning experience for each student, and at lower cost than traditional textbooks, too. The reality is not quite so rosy.

Initiating an adaptive learning program

Northern Arizona University (NAU) is one of eight universities to receive a grant from Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) to accelerate the adoption of adaptive courseware. As part of this grant several courses have been redesigned to incorporate these systems, typically as a textbook replacement for in-person classes.

The most common approach when implementing adaptive learning is to select an existing courseware product, such as an e-textbook, that already has adaptivity designed and programmed into the system. Some of the leading publishers with adaptive content offerings include Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, and Macmillan.

Choosing the best content

Selecting an existing adaptive courseware product requires research to determine the best fit for a given class. Several lower-level classes at NAU are using adaptive courseware products, many for the first time, this fall semester.

In general, teaching and learning challenges are very similar across disciplines. Our students come to teachers underprepared for college. They bring a wide range of prior experience and often have large gaps in the foundational or prerequisite knowledge required to be successful. Many students have poor study habits or significantly underestimate the appropriate amount of time needed for work outside of class.

To address these challenges, faculty in biology, statistics, information systems management, math, and chemistry have chosen adaptive courseware. Across the board, these faculty report a fair to significant time investment in preparing to teach using these systems. Many faculty did the research and prep work, supported by vendor and institutional learning designers, over the summer for implementation in the fall.

Supporting faculty and students

As part of the course redesigns, we at NAU paid careful attention to the support structures needed for both faculty and students. Because of the APLU grant, we were able to incentivize faculty time on these projects. This is a widely acknowledged strategy to ensure a successful launch.

We also provided extensive faculty development. In early August we presented several workshops on adaptive learning and implementation.  We also provided one-on-one instructional design support, and we facilitated a learning community of practice to help faculty share their ideas and experiences.

Students also require support, albeit in different ways. Another widely acknowledged concern about adaptive learning is student pushback. Not surprisingly, students complain about the extra time and work required, as opposed to the passive learning they seem to prefer when they show up to a lecture without having done the reading.

So we coached students at the beginning of the semester to help them understand the benefit of this approach. We also provided several layers of human support and intervention: we encouraged them to help one another, and we provided TA support, supplemental instruction sessions, and faculty office hours. The data that is collected by the system about student performance is used to target and reach out to students who are struggling, making the approach strategic at scale.

Promising results so far

For the most part, adaptive learning at NAU has been positive. Students and faculty both see the value in customized learning paths, experiences, and study methods.

For example, in the Introduction to Computer Information Systems class, students take a pretest at the beginning of each unit. After assessing the skills students already have, the MyLab & Mastering Pearson courseware presents the students with only the training exercises they need to address gaps in ability. After students finish the training, they complete and submit the assignments for that module. If, on the pretest, students demonstrate mastery of all skills, they are not required to complete any training and instead can go straight to the assignments. Students and faculty both appreciate this efficiency as it eliminates busywork for those who already know how to do the tasks required.

In Introduction to Business Statistics, students receive a customized study guide from the McGraw-Hill Connect courseware. The system generates the guide based on each student's performance and identifies areas for review and further study prior to exams. Again, students appreciate the targeted feedback so they can best use their available time to prepare for the exam.

In General Chemistry, the McGraw-Hill Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces (ALEKS) adaptive courseware guides students through the kinds of tasks they seem ill-equipped to do but should be doing to learn new content. Ideally students would invest time in looking up concepts or terms they don't know, quiz themselves, and complete extra practice problems if they don't feel confident. But as teachers know, it's a very rare student indeed who shows the initiative to do those things to the extent needed. Therefore, the system structures activities to ensure sufficient time on task.

Next steps: the adventure awaits

There are a few instructors at NAU who tried adaptive systems and rejected them after 2-3 semesters, concluding that these platforms are not sufficiently developed to be helpful. And this is a valid concern. This technology is new. As such there's plenty of opportunity to improve and refine the courseware. But the majority of NAU faculty who have implemented adaptive courseware conclude there's no going back. The gains in student learning are such that instructors can't imagine teaching otherwise.

However, it's not all perfect. One of the ongoing challenges is that to date, adaptive courseware is primarily available for lower-level STEM classes. How this technology applies in the humanities remains to be seen. For now, we will forge ahead, excited to see what's around the corner, ready to continue the adventure.


Flower Darby is a senior instructional designer at the Northern Arizona University eLearning Center.