Introduction to Adaptive Learning

There is a major flaw in the “one size fits all” classroom training method- for one we are not all the same “size” or “type”. In fact, there are as many variations in people’s style, content and assessment preferences as there are people.

On the other hand, we live in an interconnected world powered by a smart device (such as a smartphone), rich content and fast connectivity. The world of learning has long sought a way to address the flaws of traditional teaching, and has recently begun the Adaptive Learning model of content creation.

To put it simply Adaptive Learning is a technology-enabled method that attempts to create different learning paths, with the assumption that at least one path will fit each student. To be sure, the idea of personalized teaching has been around for a long time, but it just hasn’t been practically possible to do. After all, teachers cannot teach 40 students in a class the same concept 40 different ways. But technology can.

In a typical Adaptive Learning exercise, the learner is “pre-assessed” to establish their existing level of knowledge. Next, content is presented to the learner and the response is measured. The system then presents material, followed by a quiz. Depending on the result, the system may move on, or re-present the material through a different medium like a video, followed by further testing and so on. In many cases this level of instruction is sufficient, and most L&D companies that advertise they offer Adaptive Learning limit their offerings to what we mentioned above.

However, Adaptive Learning is more than just computer-controlled multiple learning paths, or just alternatives created in the hopes that one of them will fit the learner. In reality, none may work. For instance, an Adaptive Learning system may choose to explain an important topic like say…office communication through one of three methods- first, a printed list of bullet pointed “do’s and don’ts”; second a recorded video; and third, a simulation through a mock exercise. However, the learner may still not grasp the finer nuances of the central learning for a variety of reasons- there might be a language barrier, for instance. However, the learning isn’t “adaptive”, because it did not “adapt” to the learner’s existing shortcoming of being an ESL speaker.

In that case, what exactly is Adaptive Learning?

Before we define what it IS, it is useful to define what it is not:

  • Adaptive Learning is not Personalized Learning

This may come as a surprise, but there is a difference between Adaptive and Personalized learning. The reason is that Personalized learning isn’t really personalized- after all, that would be untenable for most large organizations. Instead, L&D managers define several “personas” of learners, and define learning programs for each type. However, the content isn’t adaptive i.e. it does not look into variations such as the difference in speed of learning and comprehension between individuals.

  • Adaptive Learning is not Branched Scenarios

While Personalized Learning creates individual learning plans for each persona, a branching scenario (or branched scenario) creates a few variations in the plans for each persona. Let’s look at an example: Suppose the L&D requirement for a new employee is to learn the firm’s Corporate Communication guidelines for a “new entry-level employee” persona. The training plan may give the trainee a few choices- Would they like to learn via a video? If the trainee chooses that option, they may watch a video, then take a quiz. On the other hand, the trainee might decide video is not the right option for them, in which case they might have to attend a classroom session followed by a presentation covering the main points. Either way, if the quiz or presentation get a “passing grade”, the trainee may be deemed “trained in Corporate Communication”.

There are a number of problems with this. For one, the trainee is constrained by the choices available to them. If the trainee learns best through a combination of video and classroom, that option may simply not be available. Furthermore, there is no way for the branching scenario to “grow with the user”.

Now that we’ve defined what Adaptive Learning isn’t, let us examine what it in fact, is:

As the name suggests, Adaptive Learning is a learning method which provides training in line with an individual’s learning goals, based on personal and business requirements. This means it must provide the right training at the right time. To do so, it may combine a plethora of resources and approaches including videos, simulations, in-class training etc. on a continuous learning basis that can be incorporated into the employee’s workflow. Most importantly, the Adaptive Learning method requires that a firm stop assessing trainees based on their ability to do well in tests, and learn to measure performance in the real world, especially if it is not easily quantifiable.

Adaptive Learning shows a lot of promise as a mass education tool, that’s for sure. What isn’t as clear is its place in a teaching environment that involves teacher-student and peer-to-peer interactions for learning. Furthermore, with its emphasis on data gathering and analysis to plan out a learning plan for the student, adaptive learning seems more suitable for objective learning subjects like Math and Science than for those involving the more “human” side of emotion-based study, such as drawing, language and so on.

Be that as it may, Adaptive Learning as a concept is a game-changer. Evermore cheap and accessible technology, emergence of byte-sized learning through micro-learning modules etc. allows a vast array of material than can be presented for either topical, or branched scenarios. If used right, it has the potential to acquire the holy grail of all learning- personalizeations.

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