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The Growth of 'Adaptive Learning' Technologies

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Over the last few years, "adaptive learning" technologies have gotten validation from mainsteam education publishing companies like McGraw-Hill Education and Pearson Education, as Pearson began to integrate new adaptive learning softwares from Knewton into their own software and McGraw-Hill purchased ALEKS Corporation. Though both companies had online textbooks already in existence, the move to embrace adaptive learning technology reflects an effort to create more interactive, more individualized experiences. Early this year, The Chronicle of Higher Education published The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook discussing the potential risks and benefits of transitioning to adaptive learning technologies, as well as making the valid point that although publishers have begun to splurge on software companies and building up digital capabilities, very few textbooks today are born-digital.

In Pearson's case, Knewton's technology will be replacing some of Pearon's pre-existing programing. While the educational material will be Pearson's, Knewton's "interactive tutors" will manage the way in which the material is developed by tailoring it to the students, as determined by short tests of mastery and offering supplemental material where needed. Instructors, of course, can pre-set their own priorities and add supplemental material. For a better understanding of how Knewton's technology operates, the Hechinger Report interviewed vice-president of research David Kuntz about how their system works.

Adaptive learning is not, in and of itself, a "born-digital" concept. In theory, the idea comes from the behaviorist school of psychology, which promises that learning is most effective when the educational stimuli adapts to and interacts with the learner. However, the potential benefits are not limited to students: using textbooks and online material with adaptive learning components can allow instructors to get detailed, highly specific feedback on both individual students and class-wide trends - without having to grade on a micro-level. The technology remains under construction, and the implemention is far from universal, but the recent bumps from major textbook publishers suggest that adaptive learning is certainly on the rise.

One of the hopes is that adaptive learning can replicate the individualized attention of the liberal arts-style classroom in distance learning. Proponents of adaptive learning technologies as a component of distance learning also note that the same strategies could be used to improve collaboration and group work in distance education by better grouping users based on common interests, skills, and abilities. If this aspect does come to fruition, it could be implemented in traditional classrooms as well through instructors allowing the adaptive learning component of the course to create and designate groups and collaborative assignment according to its internal analytics.

As with many blended learning innovations, start-up and implementation costs of adaptive learning can be extremely high, even to the point of being prohibitive. However, as these systems become more common, the technology behind them becomes more re-usable and customizable. While Pearson and McGraw-Hill are currently developing their adaptive learning technologies as part of textbook purchases, these systems are also making their way into the OER pool, which will hopefully make them more easily accessible to those who would have been barred by expensive development and implementation costs.