Photo by Carol E. Davis (cropped), license
High bets have been placed that adaptive learning will revolutionize education within the next 10 years.
The “boots-on-the-ground” educators are accustomed to hearing bold proclamations that technology will soon raise the age-old education methods from their foundations.
But adaptive learning has not quite gained the public’s eye like tablets in the classroom or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS). Many educators likely still are unaware that this rapidly growing industry exists.
In brief, adaptive learning systems are computer-based and use data-driven algorithms to decide what a student is ready to learn based on the system’s knowledge of what the student already knows. With this knowledge, the system builds individualized learning paths that continuously update based on performance.
So, should we believe the hype? Will these systems revolutionize?
Why Should We Be Interested?
Well, one huge reason is because the companies that published nearly every text book in the last century placed heavy bets that adaptive learning will drastically redesign the educational landscape.
“The Big Three” education publishers (Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) have all partnered with or acquired adaptive learning start-ups to create the adaptive applications that supplement their textbooks.
Billions of dollars have been spent thus far on adaptive learning, and the trend is not just limited to “The Big Three” publishers – as many other publishers have reached deep into their pockets to invest in adaptive learning.
Some Big Industry Players
Likely the heaviest hitter in the sphere of adaptive learning is the New York City-based start-up Knewton. But since Knewton is oft-covered by edtech blogs and magazines for their algorithm-related prowess, it seems more reasonable to discuss a few of the other big names in the industry. Like Smart Sparrow.
Australian start-up Smart Sparrow has a completely different view on adaptive learning; focusing on what they call “learning by doing”; an approach that focuses primarily on browser-based simulations.
“Sometimes I worry that we are raising a generation of kids who must think that there are four possible solutions to every problem in life, and that one of them must be right, and if you don’t know which one, your best chances are to guess ‘C,´” said Dr. Dror Ben-Naim, Smart Sparrow CEO and founder, in an op-ed for The Australian Financial Review. “Online learning can, and should, be much richer, interactive and adaptive.”
Rather than simply text-based lessons and tests, Smart Sparrow builds detailed and adaptive simulations that allow students to test their knowledge in life-life conditions.
Teachers can produce their own interactive simulations, or work with Smart Sparrow programmers to build their envisioned model. Examples include simulations that allow engineering students to build bridges; medical students to perform surgeries on patients; and chemistry students to work in the lab. While working through simulations, students can receive immediate and detailed feedback, and performance is automatically sent back to the teachers.
Smart Sparrow focuses heavily on STEM disciplines.
“(M)ost current online experiences, even those that are massively open (MOOCs), are not doing much more than reusing old ways in a new digital medium – a phenomenon that the software pundits call ´shovelware,´” continued Dr. Ben-Naim. “The first wave of mindless educational ´shovelware´ – is giving way to a smarter future. That is, a future in which networks of educators can collaborate to create and share, rich, interactive and adaptive courseware, and in which students’ skills and knowledge will be available in their lifelong learning profiles.”
While recently receiving funding that allowed the company to expand into the United States, Smart Sparrow relocated its headquarters from Sydney to San Francisco.
While Smart Sparrow tends to focus on high school and above, many other adaptive learning systems exist for elementary-aged students – in the area of mathematics especially.
Almost all elementary-focused platforms claim one of their key features is that learning with their product is “just like a game.” DreamBox Learning is the app that does this best.
DreamBox Learning was built by Seattle-based start-up DreamBox; a company founded in 2006 by Microsoft executive Ben Slivka. DreamBox received most of its funding from NetFlix CEO Reed Hastings, who later bought the company in 2011. Like other adaptive learning apps, DreamBox Learning focuses on algorithm-based adaptive learning paths that determine what a student is ready to learn based on what a student already knows.
“DreamBox Learning’s adaptive technology is fueling the blended learning movement in classrooms nationwide to help millions of students thrive in mathematics,” said Hastings, ina press release from December after announcing he was investing an additional $15 million in the company.
When creating an account, students must first choose from 32 different avatars to assign themselves with. And while commanding this avatar, they are assigned various video game-like missions; not too much different than saving the princess in Super Mario Bros.
But to advance on the path of mission completion, students must complete math exercises that are placed along the way.
“It’s an environment where learners are constantly evaluated – not by mundane assessments or tests, but by becoming fully engaged in an engaging game-like learning experience,” said Greg Long, Senior Vice President of Product Development at DreamBox, during an interview with EdTechDigest. “After every mouse click, the adaptive engine adjusts to continually individualize the learner’s pathway… We achieve a deep understanding of whether each learner truly understands the concept and if she doesn’t, and we provide gentle remediation right then and there.”
DreamBox Learning initially focused on the K-5 market, but recently expanded to middle school math. The platform has won a laundry list of awards in the education industry for its innovation.
“DreamBox individualizes each student’s learning experience, somewhat akin to the way NetFlix or Amazon personalizes consumer’s shopping experiences,” said Long.
From 2014 and Beyond
Okay, so a ton of cash has been pumped into the adaptive learning industry; providing fuel to some really interesting ideas. Ideas that could change the face of the multi-billion dollar education publishing industry.
And there are a plethora of independent studies that suggest adaptive learning, while still in its infancy, is extremely beneficial to the learning process; especially in the STEM areas.
But why is a topic that has so much potential still largely unknown to the general public?
There are still many hurdles learning adaptive needs to overcome, and this likely plays a role in its current position. Probably the most cumbersome of these hurdles is overcoming the unwillingness of faculty to buy into adaptive learning.
“Imagine the best teacher empowered with unlimited data, permanent memory, and infinite patience,” said Long from DreamBox. “If a teacher could sit beside each student, each day, and help them truly understand the concepts and strategies of early mathematics, the child would be able to work continuously and directly in her optimal learning zone: not too easy, not too hard. Our (system) has achieved this.”
With statements such as this, it is not difficult to see why teachers might feel defensive; it appears that adaptive learning systems will take their jobs. Though when asked, most of these adaptive learning industry leaders would say the opposite; that their platform is meant to be “blended” into the classroom environment as a supplement.
This is partially true – but without a doubt, adaptive learning inherently requires less teacher interaction – which likely equates to less teaching jobs.
Also, there are big concerns involving big data, as a seemingly-growing number of parents worry about giving away so much of their child’s personal information.
Despite these concerns, as schools in America continue to face budget constraints and challenges meeting Common Core Curriculum standards, the schools most willing to take risks and experiment with new technology likely will reap the benefits of adaptive learning. Don’t be surprised if the rest soon follow path.
Yes, believe the hype…