Beacon.JPGJust read an interesting study on Adaptive Learning conducted by SRI Education in higher education. (Yes, I admit it, I am actively avoiding the depressing Twitter-infested news cycle)

I conducted an informal analysis of students outcomes using adaptive learning during my first year of implementing McGraw Hill’s Connect, and found similar results to SRI’s study: no significant difference in learning outcomes, course completion and course grades between the control group and those using the “machine.”  So there is no magic bullet here. In fact, in the case of ASU’s adoption of these tools for a basic skill math course, the adaptive product slightly lowered performance compared to a “blended” course control group. However, after reading this study and reconsidering the results of my own informal study, I do believe that a longitudinal, controlled study with properly calibrated metrics may, over time, show better results for some adaptive technology products.

Which is why I continue to use the adaptive learning software in my classes despite studies like these. Why? There are several reasons for my persistence—and persistence is key here. Because there has been struggle all along the way, from technology to sales reps, these products are not plug and play—some day maybe, but not today.

Reason #1 for Adopting Adaptive Technology

There is nothing worse than asking a classroom full of students a question that was thoroughly covered in the required reading—and seeing that collective, vacant stare. Or worse, seeing the eyes drop from view with the classic look of  “please don’t call on me panic.”  For years before trying adaptive technology, it had become very clear to me that more and more students were getting away with not reading the text, and many were not even buying the text.

The dashboard that tracks students progress through the material proved to be valuable enough to keep me hooked in. Working as my “reading police,” this feature allows me to ‘see’ where students are, identify at-risk students, and align classroom plans with progress. According to the SRI study, higher education faculty agreed with me that this feature is highly valuable. In the age of “just Google it,” educators need to hold students accountable for required course reading—this tool puts the advantage back in favor of faculty. As I tell students, you can find any answer you want on the internet—it just might not be the right answer. We carefully select college textbooks for a reason and holding students accountable for reading them is the number one reason for adopting textbooks with progress tracking dashboard features.

Reason #2 for Adopting Adaptive Technology

The study also points out that these technologies were implemented, in several cases, along with the push to reformulate the traditional lecture model into a student-centered pedagogical model. SRI authors write, “Both bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions were seeking to reduce the amount of lecture and increase active student learning in the classroom, so they used the adaptive courseware to support self-study of basic material usually presented in class lectures.” However, what SRI researchers found was that despite adding the adaptive learning, lectures and presentation times were not decreased significantly.

Decreasing time spent lecturing on the textbook material helped me immensely—and continues to be a motivating factor as I continue to work through myriad issues involved with implementing this technology. The adaptive learning helps me to focus on the higher-level concepts and active learning in the classroom and leave the lower-level “information gathering” to the reading police.  But if educators don’t make this shift—more active engagement, less lecture—then the adoption of this technology seems pointless. This shift requires extra work as faculty must take a holistic view of the course and adjust accordingly—and that hurdle probably explains the results of the SRI study. Humans don’t automatically adjust to the presence of machines—it’s a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Until the big picture becomes clear, connecting all the little pieces takes time.

Reason #3 for Giving Adaptive Technology a Chance

I agree with the study authors’ recommendation for the next wave of research on these products: “The ALMAP evaluation focused on time devoted to lecture and presentations, but future work should examine (1) how adaptive courseware affects the relative balance between low-level and high-level content interactions between instructors and students and (2) how the automated dashboards in adaptive courseware affect instructors’ sensitivity to individual and whole-class learning needs.” Both of these examinations look into important adjustments that faculty make in response to the machine. Again, these adjustments don’t automatically happen, educators make them happen and this takes time and effort.

Final Musings…

These technologies are disruptive—which I believe is a good thing. Thinking about the impact these technologies have on 21st century instructional design and pedagogy really is the new mental space we all need to rent. How do I adjust my lecture/teaching/activities—time— to take advantage of what the machine can do for me? How can the machine help me better serve the needs of ALL students? What value can I place on these tools given my particular challenges in the classroom? How can the machine serve my needs and therefore better serve students’ needs? Entering this new space where we deeply consider emerging technologies can be daunting but also invigorating—familiar territory for 21st century pedagogical pioneers.