When a college or university considers using adaptive learning technology in its classrooms, a basic question it must confront is if it is ready. Are the cultural and practical elements in place to succeed?
Every Learner Everywhere has been working with its partner institutions to assess their readiness. These 10 so-called “Lighthouse” institutions piloted the use of adaptive learning in over 40 entry-level courses in 2019. (Lighthouse institutions are the first colleges and universities served by the network and that are producing insight and data about implementing digital technologies.)
The pilot of these 40 courses was preceded by a needs assessment to understand the capacity and readiness of each school to design courses using adaptive learning technologies. Three of the network partners, Achieving the Dream, the Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU), and Digital Promise crafted the needs assessment and provided technical assistance.
Megan Tesene, Associate Director of the Personalized Learning Consortium at APLU, says each of the consulting partners met with cross-functional project teams that included faculty, instructional support staff, and other stakeholders. “Each of us had guiding questions about things we wanted to look at on campus,” she says.
“Who’s interested in this work, who’s involved in it, and what are the institutional capacities? We did a lot of questioning and looked at the breadth of the different resources they had on campus. We also looked at the ability and commitment to integrate existing resources into supporting the initiative.”
Below are seven of the criteria that emerged and that institutions should consider using to evaluate their readiness for adaptive learning.
Success will depend on communication, collaboration, and coordination across multiple groups of stakeholders at a college or university.
Tesene says, “There needs to be an understanding at the administrative level that faculty need space and time to do this work. It’s not just plugging a tool in. It must be integrated into the pedagogy and into the course design.”
Tesene recommends coordinating with the campus teaching and learning centers as well as with IT to make sure the courseware integrates into the learning management system (LMS).
Likewise, teaching and learning centers must be available to support course and curriculum design and to ensure the adaptive elements align with course objectives. “Instructional designers are excellent partners that are often underutilized,” Tesene says.
Barbara Means, Executive Director, Learning Sciences Research, at Digital Promise, says “Ideally, alignment is institution wide and reflected in the college’s goals and strategic plan.”
Successful projects need champions who stay active.
Means recommends looking at whether that champion “is at a high-enough level at the institution to garner resources for the effort.”
In most institutions, a small group of people will lead the effort to implement adaptive learning. Is that team prepared for success?
Means describes several factors to consider:
One major benefit of adaptive learning technology is the potential to improve learning outcomes for large numbers of students. An interesting experiment with a couple of instructors working in isolation will have a limited impact.
To scale up adaptive learning across an institution, it needs to have processes in place for reviewing outcomes data, learning from it, and using it. Tesene says embedding continuous improvement into the design of adaptive learning is vital to success. Faculty need to know what they want to accomplish, measure progress,. and refine courses.
“Is there an instructional design team on hand that understands what adaptive learning is and can offer help on building that out?” she asks. “Does the institution have the infrastructure and technological capacity to integrate adaptive courseware into their LMS? Do they have a plan for which tool they want to use and how they plan to use it?”
The data generated by adaptive learning can support continuous improvement of teaching and learning at the course and program levels. It can help identify individual students whose academic performance is lagging, and it can help identify where a section or multiple sections of a course lose large numbers of students.
The needs assessment that network partners used asked institutions consider their data culture by asking questions like:
Tesene says a simple reality check is to ask “Which experts do you already have who are knowledgeable and understand how to interpret data? And how easy is it for faculty to just login and see what their success rates are?”
An institution should also ask about its data culture — how data is shared across campus and if there are open and transparent conversations about data and how it can inform teaching and learning.
If the data reveals opportunities for improvement, that means implementing adaptive learning successfully will require ongoing professional development by faculty — both permanent and adjunct.
Project teams should evaluate if:
First look at campus culture, Means says. “Are there professional learning opportunities there, and are faculty actually working with staff from the teaching and learning center?”
Tesene advises institutions to look at compensation for the extra labor and time needed to redesign courses for adaptive learning technology.
“Does the campus offer recognition in the form of stipends or awards?” she asks. “It takes time, effort, and energy to do this well. Faculty require institutional supports as well as recognition for their commitment to teaching and learning.”
The goal of Every Learner Everywhere is to improve learning outcomes for first-generation college students, low-income students, and students of color by implementing digital technology in the classroom.
The network turned to adaptive learning because of the potential to close achievement gaps in courses with students who have a wide range of readiness. (The pilot particularly targeted “gateway” courses. These introductory courses in a program of study often have hundreds of students in a lecture-style format, and they are often a barrier to progress for under-represented students.)
Institutions implementing adaptive learning must look at ways to support all students regardless of where they are starting. In addition to supporting students with diverse levels of prior learning, courses should strive to be culturally responsive.
This means course content and instructional methods are designed to engage students in ways that are meaningful to them. Collaborative projects and interactive digital simulations can be effective for students who tune out during long lectures and text-reading sessions.
The needs assessment used with pilot institutions asked:
When evaluating whether your college or university is ready to implement adaptive learning, look at your strengths. Where are you weak or missing criteria?
The good news is many savvy people already doing this work well at other institutions are happy to share their knowledge and experience.
For example, during the pilot project, peers from Lighthouse institutions used an online tool to share their experience, advice, and expertise with each other.
Tesene says that support and cross-pollination “is absolutely happening all the time. Bringing peers together has been really compelling because they speak the same language and can relate to and advise one another based on their experiences.”
Both Means and Tesene believe every college or university is ready to try adaptive learning to some degree. You don’t have all excellent capacities in all the areas above from day one. Institutions do often start with a single class or program.
But to have a broader impact on student success, you have to prepare to implement what you learn at scale. That will mean developing the culture, resources, and leadership described above.
In the meantime, start somewhere: Gather evidence about what’s working, and share that with others on campus. With each iteration, you’ll learn more, become more comfortable with adaptive learning, attract supporters and champions, and deliver a positive impact on student outcomes.
Pamela Baker is a freelance writer specializing in education technology and higher education.