Every college or university launching or extending an adaptive learning initiative has unique needs. But an engaged cross-functional team committed to using digital learning technologies to close equity gaps is essential.
As Associate Director of Teaching and Learning at Achieving the Dream, Dr. Ruanda Garth-McCullough has worked on adaptive learning initiatives with community colleges across the U.S. She provided consultation and training as part of Every Learner Everywhere’s pilot year with Lighthouse Institutions (the first colleges and universities served by the network that are producing insight and data about implementing digital technologies).
When Garth-McCullough and her colleagues begin work with a college, they first help them to organize a cross-functional team that will develop and execute an action plan. Every team is different, because every project and institution is different.
“This work isn’t achievable unless it takes into account the different campus contexts and cultures,” says Garth-McCullough.
Garth-McCullough was also one of the reviewers of Adaptive Courseware Implementation Guide, published by Every Learner Everywhere, Intentional Futures, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and Achieving the Dream. Garth-McCullough recommends these three foundational principles for institutions creating their own cross-functional teams to support an adaptive learning initiative.
1. Understand how adaptive learning is already being used
On every site visit, Garth-McCullough expects to find “random acts of adaptive.”
For example, at one college that she was helping to “start” an adaptive learning initiative in math classes, an art history teacher was already using adaptive courseware. Getting that instructor involved with the new project inspired administrators to consider other use cases beyond their original plan.
At another college, Garth-McCullough had been told the math department had been using adaptive courseware for years, only to find that even though the faculty used the software, they didn’t use its adaptive features.
Who you need to invite to your implementation team depends on whether your initiative will be campus wide, interdisciplinary, or focused on a single department or course. Naturally, each of those approaches will involve different faculty, but also different academic advisors and academic support programs.
Surveying faculty to understand ways faculty are already using adaptive in the classroom helps ensure you get the full depth of experience people might bring to the table. “The range of disciplines using adaptive courseware that a college isn’t aware of can be a surprise,” says Garth-McCullough.
2. Consider every place students go for support
Along with inviting participating faculty and department deans and chairs to your implementation team, Garth-McCullough recommends drawing broadly from administration, faculty developers, instructional designers, institutional research representatives, and student services professionals.
Colleges often don’t think to include student services, says Garth-McCullough. But they are a critical touchpoint along a student’s learning journey, and it’s important they understand the software students are using. “It’s really beneficial for students to have continuity across their supports,” she says.
For example, one college Garth-McCullough worked with invited their tutoring service staff to be part of the implementation team. That way, the administrators were able to get feedback on how students were actually using the software from the staff members the students were reaching out to for help.
Adjunct faculty are another important group that needs to be invited to the table. Garth-McCullough notes that “because adjunct faculty teach over 50 percent of community college courses, they are essential to student success.” Their participation creates a lot of potential for an institution to roll out adaptive courseware in an effective way.
More on this topic — Effectively Adding Adjunct Faculty to Your Adaptive Learning Implementation
3. Invite interest rather than mandating participation
One challenge of an adaptive learning initiative that many colleges and universities face is getting buy-in from faculty, who often have busy schedules. Originally, Garth-McCullough’s team at Achieving the Dream thought the best way to implement adaptive learning was to start with the course that needed it most, judging by things like the biggest equity gaps or the highest enrollment.
Experience now tells Garth-McCullough, however, that targeting courses with equity gaps and the largest enrollment is not enough. To be effective, you also have to find the faculty who are most interested or possibly already using adaptive courseware in their own classrooms. “You have to develop some wins and gain traction,” she says.
Another example of a “random act of adaptive” Garth-McCullough encountered was when consulting with a college that discovered part-way through the launch of their initiative that a faculty member had been using adaptive courseware for almost five years in her microeconomics course. She had deep experience analyzing data from the courseware and redesigning her course.
Once they brought that economics instructor to the table, the work changed tone. It went from “must do” to “get to do,” because she inspired other faculty to see the ways adaptive can be used to achieve learning goals.
“It’s easier for faculty to develop interest when they see a peer is doing something, versus a mandate,” says Garth-McCullough. That’s one of the best ways to help get buy-in from faculty who may seem skeptical at first.
Adaptive learning initiatives are a team effort
As you build the cross-functional team, remember that every step of a successful adaptive learning implementation to improve learning outcomes for minoritized and poverty-affected students should be a team effort, from choosing the courseware and designing the courses to learning how to use it in the classroom.
“If each faculty member is doing this individually, they’re reinventing the wheel when they come up against the same issues,” says Garth-McCullough. “A team-based approach will help faculty navigate it.”
Originally published May 2020. Updated August 2021 with additional information and references.