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What Exactly Does Adaptive Learning Look Like? Part 1
Thursday, October 12, 2017
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ATD product manager Jeffrey Surprenant recently sat down with subject matter expert James Bennet to uncover not only what adaptive learning is and looks like, but also the why and how behind implementing it in your organization. 

What Is Adaptive Learning?

James: I am so glad you opened with this question. For many, the answer might seem a little obvious, but it really isn’t. There have been a lot of interpretations of what adaptive learning might be—and those interpretations are often centered on a specific product or delivery system. If we were going to try our hand at coming up with a single, all-encompassing definition, I would say adaptive learning is an approach that works to tailor the learning experience to the specific needs of the individual—and in this case, uses technology in a way that makes it scalable across a larger number of learners. 

While those words give us an accurate definition, they may not really explain what adaptive learning is, so for the sake of clarity I would like to give an example. Imagine that there is a course with three learning objectives, three things we want the learner to come away with. Let’s say that the learner is already an expert in objective A, knows very little about objective B, and is somewhat familiar with objective C. An adaptive learning system would evaluate the learner’s ability and create a custom experience for them. There would be nothing or very little about objective A, quite a bit about objective B, and what hopefully would be the best content and material to help the learner meet objective C. So, two people may take the same course, but the content, assessments, and experience will be tailored to their specific needs, strengths, and weaknesses. 

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What Is the Learner Experience Like in an Adaptive Learning Environment?

Much is the same, but there are differences at a higher level of experience. When online education first took off, it could be a little difficult getting people to understand that the game-changing experience was really almost above the environment. You could say, “It’s pretty much like any other media-based communication—it can be reading, or watching video, or a host of other things,” but the big experiential change was something subtler—it was a freedom that was so much a part of the condition of the experience that it was often overlooked. For hundreds of years, formal education had been tied to a very specific place at a very specific time. Online education meant the learner no longer had to be sitting in a certain room at a certain hour. 

The big experiential shift for adaptive learning comes from the removal of an entirely new set of constraints—those of the time required to learn. Again, going back to formalized learning, in order to scale learning, the same material is presented to everyone and in the hopes that they get it. But with adaptive learning, only what is needed is presented. If I already know how to use a certain software application, why should I be required to spend three hours watching presentations on it? 

As with online learning, each adaptive learning system can be a little different, but there is a core set of similarities. Typically, when a student begins an adaptive course, they take an assessment. This lets the system begin to determine what the learner needs to know and what they do not need to know. In some systems, it constructs a learning path of steps, and in others it treats knowledge as discrete competencies. Either way the learner is then exposed to the content and their learning is continually reassessed—with more and more things dropping off as they are mastered. In good systems, there is also remediation. In other words, if the learner doesn’t seem to be retaining a concept, the system will give them additional explanations or direct them to additional content. 

Stay tuned for the second part of the conversation next week. In the meantime, you can read through James’ previous post, “Adapt to the Future,” and learn more about ATD Elements, our newly launched self-paced learning library powered by ATD’s adaptive learning engine.

About the Author
The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.
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