Early Adapters

Recent adaptive learning entrants seek to put faculty members in charge of "personalized" content, but will the tools go beyond pilot projects?

May 29, 2015

Professors have good reason to be wary of adaptive learning software, which automates parts of the teaching process. Adaptive courses could mean a different role for faculty members, some fear, or no role at all.

However, some of these new “personalized” learning tools are designed to be faculty friendly, and to put the technology in the hands of professors.

Smart Sparrow, for example, falls into an emerging category of customizable adaptive platforms that faculty members can use to develop and tweak their online courses. The company’s wares are used widely in Australia, and are beginning to spread in the U.S.

D2L released a different play on adaptive last month. The Canadian ed-tech company formerly known as Desire2Learn is the developer of the Brightspace learning management platform. D2L embedded an adaptive engine, dubbed LeaP, into the platform.

The company says the new adaptive option will help professors personalize learning content, resulting in improved student engagement, performance and, eventually, graduation rates.

The adaptive tool is easy to use, according to D2L. Faculty members can replace traditional curricula in their courses with “learning paths” that adjust to students’ progress, guiding them along the way.

Instructors start by entering a course’s learning objectives, content and questions about that content. LeaP takes it from there, the company said, creating the customized path for students through the course, which reacts to their successes and struggles.

“They’ll navigate through content at the speed most suitable to them,” D2L said in a web video (the company also created a graphic about the tool, available here). “As they answer questions, Brightspace LeaP recommends more materials to help them complete their objectives.”

The adaptive tool can direct students to both publisher-based and open-source material. But faculty members remain in control, the company said, by being able to adjust course content at any time. That's an improvement on much available adaptive software, said John Baker, D2L's CEO.

"Just like early computers, it’s been difficult and rigid to operate -- namely because it has traditionally been built for large publishers, not learners or instructors,” Baker said in a written statement. “With this release, D2L is bringing adaptive learning to the mainstream, making it easy to implement and flexible to use.”

However, some education technology experts remained skeptical about whether the new D2L tool or other faculty-facing adaptive engines will get much traction.

Gates Bryant is a partner with Tyton Partners, a consulting and investment banking firm that focuses on education markets. Tyton, which was formerly called Education Growth Advisors, has published reports about various adaptive learning offerings from vendors, and about faculty views on digital course ware.

Bryant said D2L’s attempt to give instructors ownership of its adaptive engine will be helpful. However, he said most faculty members see working with learning management systems as a “time suck.” So the embedded aspect of LeaP, while interesting, might not lead to broad usage.

Phil Hill, an education technology consultant and industry analyst, said D2L’s approach likely will encourage some colleges to explore adaptive learning with pilot programs. But Hill said he would be surprised to see it spread much farther than that during the next few years.

“It is very hard to make this stuff work, and from my experience faculty are not asking for magic production of pathways created by an unknown algorithm,” Hill said via email. “I just don’t see adaptive learning as a big need for campuswide deployment.”

The company responded to a question about whether faculty will appreciate a tool some describe as a “magic black box” that automatically creates a student pathway.

Kenneth Chapman, D2L’s vice president of market strategy, said the adaptive software can be both a black box that does much of the work or simply a tool for the subject-matter expert -- the instructor or course designer -- to edit and correct course content.

“Because LeaP embeds directly into our LMS -- which supports a variety of ways of defining and orchestrating constraints, it isn’t just a ‘robot builds the path’ but a tool to be wielded by the instructor along with the others at their disposal,” Chapman said via email. “For example, I might have an adaptive learning activity that terminates in a score against a couple of learning objectives -- the instructor can then set up follow-on activities in the course (group discussions, assignments, project work, remedial nonadaptive materials) based on those learning objective assessments coming from LeaP. Of course we also have examples of LeaP being the course itself.”

The adaptive learning field is relatively young and continuing to evolve, or adapt. So while experts aren’t sure how big it might get, it’s a safe bet that more companies are going to vie to get into the market.

“We do recognize that it’s early days for adaptive and there are lots of lessons to be learned and applied to the technology and the practices surrounding its use before we’re seeing massive adoption across the board,” said Chapman. “What we’re excited about is having some really great experiences for those are ready today and a very robust foundation to build on based on what we are learning from our customers.”


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