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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

We Don't Need No Adaptive Learning
April 4, 2013 - 2:36pm

Am I crazy if I want less innovation in education?

In a Thursday, April 4 column, Peter Stokes, “the executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University,” argues that “adaptive learning” is showing significant promise in enabling higher education to “unshackle” itself from the “Iron Triangle of cost, quality, and access.”

According to Stokes, adaptive learning is “an environment where technology and brain science collaborate with big data to carve out customized pathways through curriculums for individual learners and free up teachers to devote their energies in more productive and scalable ways.”

I’ll be honest. I’m not 100% sure what that means. When I read opinion pieces putatively about education that use words like “big data,” “productive,” and “scalable,” the hairs on the back of my neck go up since these are words I associate with business and marketing. Education? Not so much.

To Stokes, adaptive learning is a promising alternative to what he calls the “brute force model of delivery” where courses and curriculum are delivered in a “one-size-fits-all manner,” and those “who can’t keep up are simply left behind.”

To illustrate his point, Stokes invokes a colleague who told him over lunch, “with no small amount of pride” that he teaches to only the top 10% of students, the rest of them be damned. This professor seems so ubiquitous that I can't believe I haven't run in to him during my 13 years working at four different universities. Fortunately for Stokes, he found himself proximate to this most weightless of strawmen to launch his argument.

As best I can figure, at its heart, “adaptive learning” is software that adapts to the inputs of the student. As the software susses out a problem, it delivers a response or lesson appropriate to what the student needs to know. It figures out where the student is and meets them there.

As I read Peter Stokes’ column, or the simultaneously published article by Paul Fain on a report (partially produced by Stokes) on the current landscape of adaptive learning, I grew more and more mystified as to why there’s so much excitement over these things that are still in their nascent stages when we already have something that already does the job really really well.

I call it “adaptive teaching.”

As it happens, it’s research paper week in our offices. My shared corridor is filled with academic writing students waiting to meet individually with their instructors. Myself, I’ve been talking to every one of my students in 15-minute intervals over the course of three days. Each one of them is working on a piece of writing designed from their own interests, targeted to a specific audience that needs it. Their topics range from an exploration of cultural perceptions of stay-at-home fathers, to whether or not Joss Whedon is a feminist writer, to the ethical dimensions of nanotechnology in medicine.

I won’t deny that it’s tiring and difficult to consider 40 different research projects and offer individualized guidance on how best to move forward, but it’s what the job demands at this point of the semester, so I do it, just like all my colleagues are doing it.

Everyone who steps into our offices is at a different place in terms of their skills, their interests, their progress in the course. I have some students who’ve never written a research paper, while others are graduating seniors (despite this being a 100-level course).

Stokes believes that our “brute force” methods are leaving some students behind, but it depends on what you mean by “behind.” Certainly, some students will go further than others, receiving A’s for their work, but those that receive B’s or C’s are also learning. In fact, depending on where they started, they may have learned “more.” More importantly, they have experienced that learning is not something with a discrete beginning and ending, but an ongoing process, a process over which they have control. If they are behind, it is adaptive teaching that helps them “catch up.”

One of my goals for my composition students is to become what I call “self-regulating” writers, that is to know when they don’t know something and to then seek out the necessary knowledge or information. This could be something basic like comma rules, or it could mean they spend time considering their audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge to find the right tone or choice of words or illustrative examples for whatever they’re writing.

What I want them to understand, more than anything is that learning is a choice, an act of personal agency.

Adaptive learning, as I understand it, turns learning into a program we navigate, the software telling us what we need every step of the way. We wait for the software to tell us what's next. It removes agency from the equation, telling us what we “need,” rather than letting the individual ask and then answer their own questions.

Adaptive learning doesn’t feel like learning to me. It definitely doesn’t feel like the kind of learning that’s going to put people into the world who can adapt to the pace of change. What are students going to do when they run out of software? The product is the process. An educational process that is automated (even if customized via adaptive learning) results in automatons.

I hope that isn’t the point.

Adaptive learning is an example of what writer and scholar Evgeny Morozov has disdainfully labeled, “solutionism,” the notion that technology can provide a “benign” solution to our problems, even seemingly intractable problems like obesity and poverty.

Solutionism is poised to run rampant in higher education. We see it in adaptive learning. We see it in EdX’s recent announcement that they will be rolling out software for computer grading of essays, something about which I will have many additional thoughts in a future post.

Let’s stop pretending that any of this has to do with concern about learning. This is business. Look at the people behind the white paper on which Peter Stokes worked, Education Growth Advisors. These people are from marketing research, banking, consulting, private equity. Higher education is simply a ripe growth industry for these people. They are in the business of selling products that solve “problems.” If they have to invent the problem, so be it.

But when it comes to teaching and learning, we don’t really have a problem, at least not a problem the solutionists are seeking to solve. We are very well aware of what makes for effective learning.

Ask yourselves, what made a difference in your life as a student, and invariably the answer is a teacher or teachers. At some point, we’ve all had teachers that inspire, that light the fire, that turn us into adaptive learners with no need for software. The more we let our curriculum be driven by big data that seeks to smooth the curve of differences, the less likely we are to be exposed to the teaching that hits our particular nerves. The higher education solutionists seem to think that technology can solve the messy business of being human. But why would we want to?

It's just business, baby. If we're simply talking about hiring and empowering teachers, there's no pie for private equity or marketing research to take a piece of.

Software will always be a distant second in engaging students. If we want students to learn, the only investment we really need is in the human capital of people who teach them.

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