Going Beyond the Pilot Project

A public university group is backing adaptive learning, with grants to encourage universities to use the personalized digital courseware across multiple introductory courses.

November 16, 2015

A national association of public universities is throwing its weight behind the use of adaptive courseware, an emerging form of online course delivery that responds to students’ learning styles and levels of achievement.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities already had begun working to help some of its 237 member universities give adaptive learning a try, typically through the development of an experimental course.

This week, however, APLU is taking that effort to the next level with a competitive grant process for members that want to use adaptive courseware in multiple general education courses that enroll large numbers of students, or ones with high failure rates.

The project, which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding with a $4.6 million grant, also will focus on universities' use of online tools to be proactive in advising students.

APLU said adaptive learning has shown potential to be an effective, efficient way for students to learn, which can reduce education costs for colleges -- and the financial burden for students.

“Finding ways to decrease costs while delivering high-quality education to an expanded and more diverse student body demands that higher education institutions embrace new models for understanding and improving student performance,” Peter McPherson, the association’s president, said in a written statement.

Not everybody is jazzed about adaptive courseware. Some faculty members view the technology warily, citing concerns about who controls the academic content and whether the largely automated courseware will -- or should -- replace instructors. Others worry the technology will be used with less-prepared students, who may need more interaction with instructors to be successful. 

The APLU project, however, seeks a leadership role for faculty members.

For example, the grant is designed to create a model for cross-institutional faculty collaboration on adaptive courses in discipline-specific areas, said Meaghan Duff, executive director of the association’s Personalized Learning Consortium -- a group of 20 APLU member institutions that pay dues to work together on adaptive and other personalized-learning technologies.

The project will fund professional development for professors on adaptive learning. The grants also will pay for a full-time campus-based program manager at each of its recipient universities.

“We believe that faculty and pedagogical experts must play a central role in the adoption and delivery of digital courseware for adaptive technologies if institutions are to truly personalize learning for student success,” the association said in a written statement.

That’s the right approach, said Gates Bryant, a partner at Tyton Partners, an investment and consulting firm that has studied the adoption of adaptive courseware.

Faculty members typically must modify how they teach in an adaptive course. As a result, Bryant said, a “top-down” approach where administrators foist adaptive learning on professors is likely to face resistance. A better scenario is one in which instructors have ownership of the technology and can use it as tool to improve teaching and learning, he said. That appears to be the case with the APLU project, said Bryant.

“Institutions need to think about how to market the opportunity,” he said.

APLU in January will begin accepting applications from its members to participate in the project. The association will accept up to six university participants.

The winning submissions will be about much more than one-off courses, said Duff, with priority going to universities that go big with adaptive courses across multiple disciplines and departments, including both the sciences and humanities. APLU said it is looking for applicants that want to reform their general education curriculum.

“This is, for us, really about scaling,” Duff said.

Sharing Intel

Many universities have experimented with adaptive learning. Arizona State University, for example, has developed a deep partnership with Knewton, which is one of the biggest players in the space. And a professor at the university used Smart Sparrow, an adaptive platform, to create an online, introductory science course.

Arizona State also is a participant in APLU’s personalized learning consortium, which is managing the new grant program.

Most colleges, however, only have nipped at the edges with adaptive learning. Few have tried the technology across multiple courses, said Bryant. “Not many institutions have crossed that chasm.”

Phil Hill, an education technology consultant and expert on adaptive learning, praised APLU for encouraging universities to move beyond pilot projects and for including faculty development in the grants.

“They’re attacking the right problems,” Hill said.

As a result, Hill said the land-grant universities will be more likely to avoid the disappointing results that Essex County College has experienced in the early stages of its adaptive experiment.

The two-year college in New Jersey recently began using an adaptive digital platform for some of its developmental math courses. But students’ passage rates in those courses lag behind those of their peers in traditional math courses.

One reason the college has struggled, according to Douglas Walcerz, vice president of planning, research and assessment at Essex, who has led the adaptive work there, was that it relied heavily on graduate students to teach the adaptive courses during the experiment’s first year. That didn’t work, he said.

But as Hill said, APLU is looking to bring in faculty members who are subject-matter experts at the beginning of the project. That will help with course creation and teaching, as well as in avoiding a potential backlash to the technology.

“Even the term 'personalized' is becoming toxic,” Hill said.

In addition to the adaptive courseware, APLU will use the grants to develop online tools to promote the use and understanding of “integrated planning and advising for student success [iPASS] initiatives.”

Grantees will share what they learn about adaptive learning and proactive student advising so that APLU’s other members can watch the experiments and use lessons from them on their campuses.

“We’ll create a sustaining network,” said Duff.


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