Here’s What Adaptive Technology Is Teaching Us About Learning

technology of learning

If you’ve ever created or assigned a PowerPoint presentation at some point during your educational career, take heed: the program’s founders never intended it to be used for educational purposes.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, founder Robert Gaskins said that far more people have access to the program than the relatively small group of salespeople for which it was originally intended. When video projectors became small and cheap, just about every educator adopted one. Not only that, but PowerPoint presentations were never supposed to be an entire report—just a quick summary of something longer and better thought out. Gaskins calls it an “abomination” that students ever turned in book reports via PowerPoint: “Children need to think and write in complete paragraphs,” he says.

I bring this up because it highlights a current issue we can’t seem to resolve: most educational technology isn’t designed for teachers and learners.

One of the first red flags came from a district in Arizona that spent $33 million in educational technologies only to see test scores in reading and math stagnate while other districts enjoyed improvements. Had teachers in that district been assigned a more active role in designing and adapting these technologies, their students’ scores might have risen as well.

We may have moved on from PowerPoint presentations to apps, but the communication gap between software developers and learning experts persists.

“Blended learning is and will continue to be a critical element of a 21st century education, but only if executed with intentionality and precision,” says Rocketship Education co-founder Preston Smith in a recent Huffington Post article. “Most importantly, it will only succeed if implemented with the expertise of teachers.”

And that’s where adaptive technology comes in.

Sounds like another techy buzzword, right? Well, it’s actually one of the first edtech tools to grant teachers and learners complete ownership over its use. Using a single platform, teachers can develop and deliver content to learners, reflect on the effectiveness of that content, and further adapt content to the specific needs of their students.

Students benefit from customised educational content and immediate feedback based on individual strengths and weaknesses. And the best part is, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. In fact, that’s the whole point: Where many forms of edtech have distanced technologically challenged teachers in the past, adaptive technology promises to provide the scaffolding instructors and students need to move from learning how a tool works to learning how that tool can work for them.

EdTech That Empowers

Once teachers begin using educational technology, redesigning lessons often requires collaboration with programmers, designers, and complex software systems. Adaptive technology empowers teachers with the ability to easily and continuously improve their instruction, equiping them with analytics and authoring tools to better understand their students’ learning and modify their lessons accordingly.

Australian adaptive tech provider Smart Sparrow does just that, letting instructors use real-time analytics to understand student learning behaviour and adapt lessons based on common mistakes and misconceptions.

There are three levels of adaptivity that have been built into the Smart Sparrow platform in order to empower teachers: adaptive feedback based on what the student does and knows, adaptive pathways that offer varying sequences of content to each student, and the ability for an instructor to adapt their teaching based on an analysis of how their students learn.

When students make mistakes—forgetting what was said in the lecture, confusing terms, using the wrong formula—teachers can provide instant feedback to students as they learn in order address a misconception.

Since students learn at varying rates, have different levels of knowledge, and different misconceptions, teachers can use the platform to let them skip ahead to a more challenging task provide resources to help them better understand a concept. Content is displayed based on rules the instructor controls, so that each student gets a customised learning path based on their demonstrated understanding of a topic.

One study in a mechanics course at the University of New South Wales showed Smart Sparrow to reduce failure rates from 31% to 7%. It is now being used as far from home as Arizona State University—a welcome change, to be sure, for a state that has invested so much in failed learning technologies over the years.

Understanding the Learning Process, One Student At a Time

At the Waukesha STEM Academy in Wisconsin, instructors use another adaptive platform called ALEKS (Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces) to measure understanding of math concepts. Students fill out “learner profiles” within the first month of each curricular year, selecting preferred learning methods (videos, interactive activities, direct instruction), learning environments (collaborative, one-on-one, noise-level impact), and instructional techniques.

The teachers at Waukesha are surprised at just how individualised their instructional approach has become.

“We were amazed when we realised we could dive deeper into every student as an individual learner and not just think about where they should be, based on their age,” said Principal Jim Murray in a recent interview with Education Week. “We were able to reformulate how we were approaching kids.”

The technology has even moved some educators to reevaluate the definition of achievement. At the 1,500-student Highland Middle School in Anderson, Indiana, Milissa Crum uses iLit, an adaptive literacy program, with 51 6th graders ever single day. The program helped her realise that the goals she was encouraging students to set, such as earning an A, were too general. She now has students keep intricate logs of their learning, planning more concrete objectives like reading 100,000 words every month or improving reading-level scores by a certain percentage.

Interpreting Performance Through Adaptive Testing

The other half of the equation is adaptive testing. Designed to track not only academic proficiency but metacognitive skills such as confidence and the ability to reflect, it is currently being used by 22 U.S. states in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—one of two main groups of states crafting tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. In Australia, adaptive tests are being developed by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority in order to let students answer questions pegged to their ability level.

At Waukesha, students may take adaptive tests once a day or once a month, depending on the subject matter and how quickly they work through the curriculum. Results of the adaptive tests are then used to shape instruction. Students discuss their performance with their teachers, who analyse it with a data coach before results are passed on to parents. If a student’s scores on adaptive tests differ significantly from scores on regular coursework, another form of assessment can be used to tailor instruction to their specific needs.

At the 570-student Bunker Hill Elementary School in Middletown, Delaware, some students are permitted to take adaptive state assessments over two sessions instead of one, noting that they feel less stressed and more confident when there is time to pace themselves and check over their work. For other students, completing the test in one session optimises motivation, and so they are allowed to do that.

Students have performed well on adaptive tests, and the results appear to have translated to state testing. At Waukesha, fewer than 5 percent of students scored in the 24th percentile or lower on state tests, compared with nearly 20 percent five years earlier, when the academy was not using adaptive testing.

Finding the Right Platform

Adaptive technology may help us end the one-size-fits-all curriculum ideal, but it should be noted that not all platforms work equally well for all institutions. Here are a few of the current leaders in the field, alongside Smart Sparrow and ALEKS:


Dublin-based CCKF uses big data to guide learning, detecting precise gaps in a student’s knowledge and aligning with his or her learning style. As individual students interact with the system, a wealth of deeply granular data is collected to drive teaching and learning. Founder David Collery says the idea is to create a “longer learning map for students that will give a detailed profile of that individual’s knowledge and knowledge gaps right from primary level to university level and lifelong learning, even continuing professional development.”
The platform could also benefit parents, providing them with a visual learning map so they can see in real-time their children’s progression through the education system and in what direction their talents and skill sets are heading.

2. McGraw-Hill Education

After acquiring ALEKS earlier this year, McGraw-Hill Education launched an adaptive learning platform of its own. The new product, ALEKS Placement, features open response questions and improves placement accuracy, student preparation, and learning outcomes. The publisher’s e-textbooks, Smartbooks, also integrate adaptive learning technology powered by LearnSmart.

3. Pearson & Knewton

Pearson & Knewton have partnered up to offer MyLab and Mastering adaptive learning tools that cover all subject areas, from math, reading, and writing to biology, chemistry, and physics. The Mastering tool in particular is continuously adaptive, recommending further material based on student progress, instructor guidelines, and information gathered from all Knewton students.

4. Scootpad

ScootPad is an adaptive learning platform for Common Core Standards in Grades K-5 (Math, Reading, Spelling, Vocabulary, Writing etc.). It delivers a continuously personalised learning experience for each student, enabling comprehensive practice, accelerated progress, and rapid concept mastery. Real-time proficiency tracking allows teachers to examine student progress, and parents and teachers can assign/review homework after students complete it online.

5. Macmillan Science and Education

Also partnered with Knewton, Macmillan plans to release a new product in 2015 that offers real-time student recommendations and personalised grammar, vocabulary, exam and supplemental content designed for language learning. The publisher’s technology innovation unit, Macmillan New Ventures, also has adaptive learning company PrepU in its portfolio. PrepU’s adaptive lessons focus on college biology, nursing and medical, and advanced placement chemistry, U.S. history and psychology.

6. Desire2Learn & Knowillage Leap

In September, Desire2Learn acquired Knowillage Systems, makers of the LeaP adaptive learning and analytics engine. LeaP adjusts students’ learning paths through natural language processing techniques and analytics that help it figure out where students are struggling with material, and its analytics further assist teachers in providing the right help to address trouble areas.

7. Wiley & Snapwiz

Publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc., announced a partnership in May with adaptive and personalised learning solutions provider Snapwiz. The partnership resulted in a new product, WileyPLUS with ORION, which combined a research-based learning environment with learning, practice and assessment features that can adapt the learning experience to a user’s strengths. The product launched in summer and is free to use by students already using WileyPLUS titles in subject areas including Introduction to Business, Introduction to Psychology, Financial Accounting, and Anatomy and Physiology.

8. Dreambox Learning

An online elementary math program, DreamBox Learning utilises both adaptive technologies and gamification to helpt students raise their math proficiency. The program has shown positive results against standards including the Common Core, the Mathematics Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, and the Virginia Mathematic Standards of Living. It is also available as an iPad app.

9. Grockit

Grockit is a social learning company that started out as a test-prep platform for students preparing for tests like the GMAT, SAT, ACT and GRE. The personalised prep programs determine how students progress through questions based on how they are answering questions. It also supports group study, video, live instructor access and some game elements. Math and English test-prep programs for grades 7-12 are also available.

What’s Next

Most educational leaders believe adaptive learning will make a positive impact on higher education, and preliminary data has confirmed their suspicions. According to a recent white paper by Education Growth Advisors (EGA), a partnership between Arizona State University and Knewton saw an 18 percent increase in pass rates and a 47 percent decrease in withdrawals in math courses, saving the university an estimated $12 million. Tutorials presented by Smart Sparrow in an engineering course at the University of New South Wales led to a 55 percent decline in drop-out rates.

These numbers signify just how useful adaptive technology can become. With a bit more fine-tuning, it will be the ultimate educational tool to bridge the gap between learning from tech and learning with it.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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