Jun 30 2022

What Is Adaptive Learning and How Can You Get Started With It?

Personalized software can improve how students learn and professors teach, and it won’t require a major tech investment.

Learning models are changing throughout higher education, with a wave of remote, hybrid and blended classes sweeping through colleges and universities even as life returns to something more like pre-pandemic days.

As higher education institutions rethink how to best serve their students, adaptive learning is gaining more traction. The concept of machine-driven learning dates back decades, but with better technology now available and institutions fighting to keep students engaged and in school, it’s time to take another look at what adaptive learning offers.

At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, leaders wanted to address the high failure rates in so-called gateway courses that funnel into some degree programs. They decided to test out adaptive learning using a software platform called Realizeit.

“At our university, we have students coming from all different points, a lot of transfer students, and we have gaps in foundational skills,” says Kiran Budhrani, associate director of personalized and adaptive learning at UNC Charlotte. “Typically, algebra, biology and chemistry — these are those foundational courses which, if students get past them, they move into majors. At UNC Charlotte there are gateway courses that can become barriers to student success.”

Just a year or so year after implementing adaptive learning in a small number of those gateway courses, Budhrani says, UNC Charlotte is starting to see some incremental results, including a narrowing of the equity gap between white and nonwhite students in one statistics course. She believes more successes are just around the corner.

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What Is Adaptive Learning and How Does It Work?

Statistics is one example of the type of course best suited for adaptive learning technology, says Kathe Pelletier, director of the teaching and learning program at EDUCAUSE, because it offers yes or no answers to problems. These are the answers most easily interpreted by artificial intelligence, which adaptive learning platforms use to advance students to a certain place in the curriculum based on their knowledge and ability.

Once the AI learns a student’s strengths and weaknesses, it will tailor future lessons to plug holes in that student’s knowledge.

“The adaptive learning tool is able to provide immediate feedback and help guide the student, and really focuses their attention on what they don’t know yet,” says Pelletier. “The more guidance that we can offer in that way, the more efficient the learning is for the student.”

Instructors also benefit from the granular insights offered by the adaptive learning approach, and they can watch a student’s progress in real time through an adaptive learning map instead of waiting for an occasional quiz or test to provide insights.

DISCOVER: Colleges see equity success with adaptive learning systems.

“It allows the faculty member to refine their instruction, add more content, do more review or meet with a certain subset of students, so it helps to focus and improve the instruction as well,” says Pelletier.

In the past decade or so, advancements in technology have pushed adaptive learning forward. Machine learning and AI have made adaptive learning platforms smarter, and the ubiquity of devices has made tracking student progress easier. A new player has entered the field as well, as textbook companies have invested in programs to transfer their text-based tools into computerized systems, offering an easy-to-implement adaptive learning solution.

How to Get Started with Adaptive Learning

At UNC Charlotte, Budhrani and her team started small, carefully choosing a group of courses to be part of adaptive learning offerings. She also says the university made sure from the start to include a variety of campus stakeholders in the conversation, from senior leadership down. And she says to be patient with course design — especially if, like at UNC Charlotte, you’re using a custom platform — because it can be a monthslong endeavor that will need to be routinely tweaked as students and faculty interact with the tools.

Those are all in concert with the kind of approach Pelletier recommends for a successful rollout. Adaptive learning shouldn’t require much in the way of a technological investment; in terms of work hours, however, the investment can be huge, and getting buy-in at all levels will be vital to success.

“I focus less on the pipes and more on what the specific technical connections need to be, and really go hard on the people part,” says Pelletier.

Kathe Pelletier, EDUCAUSE
The adaptive learning tool is able to provide immediate feedback and help guide the student, and really focuses their attention on what they don’t know yet.”

Kathe Pelletier Director of Teaching and Learning Program, EDUCAUSE

Budhrani agrees, and says it’s important for administrators to be upfront with professors about how fundamental a shift adaptive learning can be. It’s a transformation from a teacher-focused classroom to a classroom focused intently on the students and their individual progress.

“An instructor’s role is not to go in and lecture anymore. The primary role is to be a facilitator, to be a coach, to be a mentor to students,” says Budhrani. “This is a mind shift. It’s almost flipped. They are using the end result of learning to drive their process rather than having the instructor as the primary driver.”

One thing that could help convince reluctant faculty is the recent spread of remote learning and the newfound ubiquity of technology in higher education.

“Instructors are now exposed to more and more digital learning tools, and it’s more natural to think, ‘If I’m using a learning management system now, what else could I use?’” says Pelletier. “It can make faculty members in particular more amenable to technology that they may have written off in the past.”

Institutions using adaptive learning also must choose what kind of program to use. UNC Charlotte’s custom platform allows them to build courses from the ground up and make changes as they are implemented. Platforms created by textbook companies, meanwhile, offer plug-and-play options, but may offer much less in the way of customization.

LEARN: Six steps to help implement adaptive courseware.

What Do IT Leaders Need to Know About Adaptive Learning?

Pelletier says one of the first things IT teams should consider regarding adaptive learning is how it fits into their IT services catalog and whether the university will support the software if users run into trouble. It’s also a good way to make sure all stakeholders are being welcomed into the conversation from the earliest stages of the process.

“Connecting the dots between the academic stakeholders, the learning design stakeholders and the broader IT support makes a big difference, no matter who holds the power or who gets to decide,” says Pelletier. “But connecting those three stakeholders is really critical.”

Once an adaptive learning platform has been added to an IT services catalog, it’s important to make sure the platform will work with whatever learning management system is already in place. Pelletier says modern adaptive learning platforms have learning tools interoperability incorporated.

At the end of the day, Pelletier says, one of the nicest things about adaptive learning is that it shouldn’t require much technology other than basic devices for students and staff.

“In my experience, compared with some other tools that require a ton of bandwidth in terms of internet access or a ton of memory in terms of processing speed or power, adaptive learning is not something that would require a supercomputer to do,” says Pelletier. “A regular device is probably all that’s needed.”

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