ATD Blog

Harnessing the Transformative Power of Adaptive Learning

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

If you are in the learning and development space, you’ve probably heard the buzz around the term “adaptive learning”. Perhaps you may have even stumbled across a few adaptive learning use cases and learning management platforms.

Several education tech vendors are doing phenomenal and groundbreaking work in adaptive learning. When the right combination of brain science, learning theory, artificial intelligence, and sound instructional design practices are applied to the mix, it is a formula for success.

However, all that glitters is not gold. While some companies are doing excellent work, others aren’t so awesome—they know how to deliver the sizzle, but the steak is not so tasty. But with a working definition of adaptive learning and its transformational power, you can better judge for yourself.

What Is Adaptive Learning and Why Is It So Powerful?

Adaptive learning is a personalized, learner-centric approach to computerized learning. It harnesses the power of artificial intelligence, brain sciences, predictive analytics, gamification, and microlearning to offer real-time adaptation based on learner activity and performance. Adaptive learning is mastery-based and technology-driven, which maximizes learner engagement, efficiency, retention, and effectiveness.

From the perspective of the stakeholders—trainers, facilitators, managers, and C-suite leaders—adaptive learning uses real-time analytics that provides KPIs (key performance indicators) that precisely pinpoint where learners have the most difficulty. When course developers and instructional designers can identify learner challenges in real time, they can rapidly course correct.

The three key aspects that make adaptive learning so powerful are neuroscience, performance impact, and learner personalization.

Leveraging Neuroscience

Fueled by brain science, adaptive learning enhances performance, increases retention, supports rapid upskilling, and holistically engages learners by providing them with a customized experience that accommodates their learning preferences.

Although the exact neuroscience methodologies, learning theories, performance matrices, and fancy terminologies differ from platform to platform, adaptive learning is primarily focused on metacognition, spaced repetition, aspects of game design, and deliberate practice.


In short, these brain sciences are leveraged to combat the forgetting curve and increase retention. They also create fun yet challenging learning experiences that build and measure confidence and competence. Likewise, metacognitive brain science helps learners better understand where their knowledge is strongest and weakest, which develops and increases awareness helping them identify where and when to concentrate their efforts.

Business (Performance) Impact

A one-size-fits-all approach to training is not only a colossal waste of money, it is also a bad business decision. Savvy companies understand that training is costly—and more importantly, that training should translate into increased performance and business impact.

Imagine if your company could reduce an annual three-hour compliance training down to an hour and a half. Think of the time savings. What if your training event affected 1,000 customer service reps who field service calls? If you could get 75 percent of the reps back on the phone an hour and a half earlier, you would regain 1,125 work hours.

To achieve such time savings, you must consider that not all your employees will possess the same level of knowledge or skill; therefore, not all employees are going to need to see all of the content.

In annual compliance training, seasoned employees are more likely familiar with course content since they have probably seen it before. On the other hand, newer employees are more likely unfamiliar with the content and may require longer consumption times.


Speed to mastery is one of the transformative powers of adaptive learning, and when correctly harnessed can lead to performance impact at both the individual and organizational levels.

Learner Personalization

No two snowflakes are the same, and neither are any two learners, especially because every person’s brain is uniquely wired. Learners come from different backgrounds, think and act differently, and consume and process information at their own pace. As adults, we have grown to expect a certain degree of personalization similar to our existing self-curated experiences, such as shopping on Amazon, building a Spotify playlist, or setting up a watch list on Netflix.

When training or learning experiences focus on personalization, they become more impactful and definitely stickier, especially when an adult learner has a strong motivation for learning or an immediate need. Adaptive learning ensures a pathway to personalization by providing learners with customization that maximizes engagement. As an efficient and effective data-driven approach, adaptive learning leverages multifaceted artificial intelligence algorithms that predict learning outcomes and prescribe learning solutions in real-time.

At scale, adaptive learning can transform organizational performance because it adjusts the path and pace of individual learning so learners can achieve mastery at their own rate of completion, often eliminating or minimizing access to content that learners have already grasped.

The purpose of implementing personalized learning is to help companies leverage their existing talent pools. Leveraging talent is achievable through understanding employees’ strengths and weaknesses, performance goals, education and work experience (formal and informal), and career aspirations. Under the right circumstances, personalized learning not only gets the proper training to the right people, it also helps companies ensure they have the right person in the right role at the right moment.

About the Author

Aaron King is a globally recognized expert in eLearning strategy, design, development, and implementation. He is a master instructional designer and eLearning developer. Aaron currently works as a solution engineer for Blackboard. He also works as a Master facilitator for the Association for Talent Development and serves as the V.P. of Business Development for the ATD Central Florida chapter. Also, Aaron is a learning experience consultant for Snack Size Learning.

Aaron leverages a wide variety of learning disciplines, to optimize learning experiences for adult learners and organizations. These learning disciplines include adaptive learning, personalized learning, design thinking, UI/UX design, microlearning, storytelling, virtual/augmented reality, and gamification. 

His doctoral work is in Education Psychology and Technology, and he holds an Education Specialist degree in Personalized and Competency-based Instruction. Also, Aaron has earned master's degrees in Education, Media Design, and Technology, Business, and Instructional Design. Also, Aaron has undergraduate degrees in information systems and technology and business management, along with graduate and post-graduate certificates in filmmaking, game design, and learning technology. 

Aaron has taught and consulted thousands of learning professionals around the world. He has worked with companies and organizations such as AON, Toyota, Comcast, the Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Army, Hospital for Special Surgery, Allstate, Sberbank, and PJM Energy to name only a few. 

Aaron's past experiences include working as a professor of Media Arts at Miami International University of Art & Design. As a Senior Vice President of Educational Technology in Outsourced Program Management in Higher Education, Aaron has worked with over 13 colleges and universities on eLearning technology adoption and integration. He has worked as a Vice President of Recruitment and Enrollment, a Multi-Platinum Music Producer/Songwriter, a Top-Selling Book Author, and a U.S. Army Combat Medic.

His mission is to impact measurable and sustainable change through technology adoption, disruptive innovation, and learner empowerment.

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Would love feedback and suggestions on vendors.
Hi Cynthia,
Thanks for your kind words! Take a look at Area 9's Rhapsode or Axonify. I must warn you they are like night and day in terms of functionality; however, they both leverage AI.
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Great article! Chock full of information in bite sized form.
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Hey Aaron. Great article! I've spent the last six years in this area, first as an adaptive learning customer and now as the CLO at Area9, who developed the technology that underpins much of what you take about in your article. I'm based in Boca Raton - maybe we can catch up soon - if not at TechKnowledge.
This space is moving forward quickly, and I really think 2019 is going to be the year that adaptive really takes off in the corporate space.
Thanks, Nick!
I love the Area9 Rhapsode product suite. You guys are doing fantastic work with AI and learner-centric experiences. You're right, 2019 will be the year for the AL invasion into corporate America. I wonder how they've gotten along without it.
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