At Columbus State Community College’s Bridge to College Math course, there is no professor at the front of the room lecturing students. Instead, students sit in pairs at carrels — one at a computer and another with a notebook — as two math instructors make their way through the room.
As this happens, a central workstation monitors the students’ computer screens to keep track of their learning progress. Instructors then analyze this information and tailor teaching to each student as part of an adaptive learning system — powered by AI and advanced algorithms — introduced at this Ohio community college seven years ago.
The system has transformed Columbus State’s course completion rates, especially for historically disadvantaged students. Overall course completion among all students rose to nearly 74 percent in 2018, up from 67 percent in 2012. And semester-to-semester retention rates among black students increased to 81 percent in 2018, up from 68 percent in 2015. What’s more, the college shrunk the yawning gap in course completion success between white and black students to 13.7 percentage points in 2018 from a 22 percentage-point gap in 2012.
“Columbus State’s adaptive learning approach showed that systemic change could be achieved at scale,” notes a new white paper from McGraw-Hill called “The Equity Equation.” The paper showcases institutions like Columbus State, Arizona State University and Triton Community College in Illinois, among others, which are improving educational equity by applying new learning methods and tools that adapt to individual student needs.
“I used to teach one class of 100 students, but now I teach 100 classes of one student each,” said Doug Williams, the adaptive learning coordinator at Arizona State University, in the white paper, describing the effect of using such a technology-driven system to improve learning outcomes.
Developing a Continuous Learning Process
Adaptive learning systems — like IBM Watson and Microsoft Power BI — have the advantage of continually assessing college students’ skill and confidence levels. This helps instructors provide precise direction to fill knowledge gaps and adapt to each student’s individual learning styles, customizing education like never before. It’s almost like one-on-one tutoring. And it gives students confidence.
A Triton student identified as Adrian in the white paper, is described as someone who has historically struggled with math in high school. Based on that experience, he was convinced he just wasn’t good at the subject. But Triton’s adaptive learning classroom techniques have completely flipped the script for him.
“Now I’m in Calculus, getting an A,” he’s quoted as saying in the white paper.
Enthused by the effect on students like Adrian, more colleges see adaptive learning’s value in improving equity and boosting completion rates. A little more than 50 major higher education institutions now lead the way in using these tech-driven teaching methods, according to Dale Johnson, director of adaptive learning initiatives as ASU.
“Higher education will become one of mass personalization. … We expect that we are at a tipping point where the majority of institutions will now implement adaptive learning over the next five years,” he said.
University Instructors See an Increased Role in Tech-Assisted Learning
College faculty members are overcoming their initial reluctance about using tech-driven instruction. Some worried that it would lead to a chaotic classroom. Others were apprehensive they would be able to gauge whether the class as a whole was making progress. And some thought their roles would become redundant.
However, many are realizing that instructors matter even more in adaptive classrooms than they might in traditional ones. That’s because they are able to now respond to students on a more direct and individual basis than before.
Adaptive learning classrooms “provide a unique gateway to a personalized, individualized, instructor-driven online classroom,” write Amy Sloan and Lindsey Anderson of Colorado Technical University, which adopted the technology for its online courses in 2012, in an EDUCAUSE article. However, “instructors must enhance the personalization offered by the AL technology by implementing strategic, targeted instructional approaches,” write Sloan and Anderson.
Colleges are also doing their part to build faculty confidence using adaptive learning. ASU requires that teachers take the adaptive technology-based course they’ll be teaching. “That was very important, because if you’re going to trust the technology, you have to understand it at that level, at the student’s level,” said Johnson.
Policy watchers and philanthropists have noticed the potential of adaptive learning and are responding.
“A growing body of evidence proves that adaptive learning platforms can be a tool to create equity,” said Stacey VanderHeiden Guney, former director of Every Learner Everywhere, a recently launched initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help colleges and universities adopt intelligent adaptive learning platforms. The initiative will start small, with a set of two-year and four-year institutions in Texas, Ohio and Florida. It has ambitious plans to expand to at least 200 institutions by 2022.