Adaptive Learning is a Transformational Education Reform Hiding in Plain Sight
Many moons ago, in what seems like a different life, I was a K-12 special education teacher. Part of my duties was to develop IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) for students with disabilities. These plans laid out the various supports, resources, and services that the school district promised to provide to students with disabilities to help them succeed academically. The most powerful part of an IEP is that it requires teachers to adapt the learning process to fit the needs of the student, which allows them to learn at their own pace, without pressure.
I would often think to myself, what if all students received an adaptive education, just like students with disabilities? This could be the silver bullet that education reformists have been searching for. However, I dismissed the idea as fantasy, as I knew that our school district was already cash strapped, and we didn’t have enough money to pull it off.
This was over a decade and a half ago, and things have changed. A small number of school districts are experimenting with adaptive learning and as a result, are seeing huge improvements in student academic achievement. Could adaptive learning be the transformational education reform that has been hiding in plain sight? Maybe, maybe not. Before we debate this question even further, let’s define what adaptive learning is, in more detail.
What is adaptive learning?
Adaptive learning is a technology-based or online educational system that analyzes a student’s performance in real time and modifies teaching and assessment methods based on that data. Think AI meets dedicated math tutor meets adaptive engagement. To help you better understand the basics and benefits of adaptive learning, let’s break down a few must-knows.
Adaptive learning helps teachers as well as students: As learners use adaptive learning-based software, teachers can analyze the data and better understand each student’s individualized needs. Figuring out everyone’s strengths and weaknesses can take hours of one-on-one tutoring, especially with large class sizes and shy students reluctant to initiate private time. With adaptive learning, teachers can immediately see where students are struggling and, more importantly, which methods of teaching are helping them improve and master the material. Everything AL software initiates to increase a student’s understanding; teachers can replicate in a classroom setting.
Adaptive learning engages the area between a student’s comfort zone and frustration zone: Intelligent AL technology accesses the Zone of Proximal Development (ZDP) for optimum mastery of the material. ZDP is the area in between a student’s comfort zone and their frustration zone. It’s the area where students are not repeating material they’ve already mastered nor challenging themselves at a level so challenging that they become frustrated, discouraged, and reluctant to keep learning. This customized level of difficulty is designed to create smart students who aren’t afraid to solve problems and creatively work out solutions, both in the classroom and outside of it.
Why are school districts are slow to use adaptive learning?
As I alluded to in the introduction, adaptive learning was not a viable option for my former school district because we were already in the midst of a serious budget crisis. Essential items such as copy paper and even paper towels were being rationed. Although most school districts are not in such dire financial straits, they couldn’t shoulder the burden of paying for the costs of adapting education for all students in every subject.
However, times are changing fast, and the cost of adaptive learning is becoming less expensive thanks to advances in technology. Adaptive learning is available for all students, with only a nominal cost to school’s districts.
Is adaptive learning really that transformational?
Personally, I think so. Even with the best teachers working 80-hour weeks, they still can’t provide adaptive learning for all of their students. Why, because adaptive learning is a labor-intensive process, that involves planning, differentiating instruction and assessment, etc. Up until the last decade, it wasn’t possible for a single teacher to shoulder this type of workload.
Now thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, we have computerized learning programs to can provide adaptive learning for each student without breaking a sweat. Teachers can facilitate the learning process and allow technology to do all of the heavy lifting. At the end of the day, students succeed academically, and we all win.
In your opinion, is adaptive learning a transformational education reform hiding in plain sight? Only time will tell.