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Adaptive learning in the classroom and beyond

Scott N. Romaniuk, University of Trento, discusses adaptive learning tech, and how it can be successfully implemented both in and out of the classroom

Adaptive learning is a method in education through which specific teaching devices or instruments are employed in an effort meet the specific learning needs of individuals. In other words, adaptive learning is personalized learning. Through the use of advanced technologies tools, instructors can transform traditional, broad-based learning into precision learning. With this, adaptive learning can be viewed as a non-traditional form of learning in that it departs from previous pedagogical methods that cannot account entirely for the myriad of unique and individual characteristics held by students. As time goes on, adaptive learning will likely become the new norm in education and serve as an invaluable approach to closing some of the existing gaps in education and knowledge procurement.

Developing adaptive learning

The concept of adaptive learning emerged from the 1970s when computers were “up-and-coming.” The initial belief was that computers through artificial intelligence would be able to adapt in accordance with the needs of the learner. Initial adaptive learning systems are associated with the SCHOLAR system and laid the groundwork for subsequent learning systems.

Educational software and basic technologies alike now serve the needs of both instructors and learners. For example, adaptive learning is linked to video learning where learners are engaging with programs and lessons that take place on the screen and incorporate different feature so as to connect with divergent learning styles. The concept also lends itself to the use of systems that are interactive and provide multidimensional interface with learners. 

Such a pedagogical practice moves beyond the confines of passive learning, enabling learners to interact with the educational programs on the topic for which they were designed, play a role in how they learn in addition to what they learn, and ultimately become a part of the teaching devices while simultaneously remaining students or learners.

Adaptive learning application

Language learners can take part in active learning by engaging in computer-human activities. Here, the learner can communicate with a program, listen to questions and provide responses, and take part in specially designed quizzes, activities, and learning sessions. Additionally, the language-learner example is useful for highlighting the interest and potential for a learner to choose their own learning path (given that there is nothing inherently linear about learning) instead of having it imposed on them. Learning paths and objectives are not rigidly tied together. Whether the same, similar, or entirely different, learning objectives ultimately involve a mix of learning paths.

Despite concern about associated financial costs, involved adaptive learning demands no more attention to development and implementation than traditional forms of instruction.

Adaptive learning merges learning styles and cognitive styles with the availability of (educational) technology, and data/learning analytics. Audio, visual, and kinesthetic or tactile learning types can benefit from this concept of learning because the concept becomes a practice of science. Though all three learning styles can be incorporated into a given curriculum, one or two styles can be emphasized and thus tailored to the specific learning needs of an individual. When you take a course that is designed specifically for that individual, taking into account their strengths and weaknesses or areas of opportunity, their learning style, attention and retention attributes, you have taken a step into the realm of adaptive learning. 

Prospects and challenges

Despite concern about associated financial costs, involved adaptive learning demands no more attention to development and implementation than traditional forms of instruction. When systems have been designed and created, they can be customized to meet the needs of another learner at relatively little cost. Curriculum as practice can be divided into distinct categories of development over time. Through learner type or style classifications, adaptations can be a rather smooth process. Interactive lessons need not be long, but rather effective in engaging the learner and making the learning objectives clear, concise, and attainable.

With the collection of more information and increasing development and collection of course materials, the establishment of a robust pedagogical arsenal would leave an abundance of course content available for instructors. The collection of various material means that instructors will already have a healthy body of go-to resources. Instructors would likely find the application of adaptive learning resource to a larger body of students easier over time.

However, a word of caution is needed when it comes to the general application of adaptive learning. Adaptive learning may not be suitable or connect cleanly with all disciplines and subject areas. Moreover, the increased use of adaptive learning, especially depending on the type or level of class in question, raises some question marks about the role of instructors and educators in practice.

Classrooms at every level, from primary school to post-secondary education, are increasingly filled with students with diverse learning and knowledge background, coupled with radically divergent interests and goals beyond their years of formal education and training. With this in mind, newer and more innovative teaching and learning methods are and will be required, and instructors can serve as information gatherers on what is required to meet these challenges by identifying them.

We should not forget that when discussing the prospective benefits of adaptive learning, discussions should not be limited to in-class learners. Mobile phones have become a powerful way of bringing the classroom to students around the world, when they face the reality of no school or classroom being available, or accessible only for a limited time. Others can experience degrees of exclusion as a result of learning or physical disabilities. As such, mobile phones and adaptive learning apps can build bridges that assist in the crossing or closing of knowledge gaps.

Not only is adaptive learning suited for bringing a variety of learning formats to the table, it is able to help instructors and researchers in the field of education understanding how learning is distinctive, differing from one learner to another, what subject areas are most desirable, and what the most fundamental problems associated with them are at a given time.