Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Jumpstarting Adaptive Learning

March 13, 2013

Today, more than ever, a college credential is critical to obtaining a middle class job and career. The historical and economic data are very clear – an education beyond high school is an important stepping stone toward success and economic independence. Yet we know that nearly half of all students who start higher education will not succeed or finish.

For some students, the challenge of balancing personal or family responsibilities and college responsibilities may be too much, for others, it might be the expense of higher education or a lack of financial aid.  For many, it is often a sense that college isn’t right for them – despite their best efforts.  Introductory courses may be too large or designed for the “average student.”  Almost by definition, that means that the course will sometimes feel too fast – in areas that are brand new or where the student is struggling, and other times feel too slow – in the areas where the student is already familiar.  But what if there was a different way?  What if approaches to learning and instruction were individualized to better serve the needs of the individual learner?  What if students could access more personalized and immediate feedback and instruction – just enough to help them succeed through a course and give them the confidence to know that they can succeed in college? We believe that potential – which we call “adaptive learning” – exists. 

At its best, adaptive learning blends elements of individualized instruction, peer tutoring, interactive simulations, learning apps that adjust to a user’s skill level, and improved academic instruction to create a more personalized college experience that will keep students moving ahead toward graduation.

A new report from Education Growth Advisors, Learning to Adapt:  The Case for Accelerating Adaptive Learning in Higher Education commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a group of innovative higher education institutions, paints a fascinating picture of adaptive learning’s potential in higher education. This report demonstrates that while adaptive learning applications and technologies utilize creative and research driven approaches, many of these solutions are not being widely adopted and are viewed as not quite ready for prime time.

To help move things along, the foundation is soliciting proposals from accredited U.S. colleges and universities for 10 $100,000 grants to help them create the partnerships necessary to launch adaptive courses over the next 24 months. The Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program seeks to further accelerate the pace of innovation in the adaptive learning market by showcasing important successes and innovations. Details of how to respond to the RFP and other important instructions can be found here.

Adaptive learning is not some distant, science fiction fantasy.  As the Education Growth Advisors report shows, it is already happening. Adaptive learning may prove to be exactly what we need most right now – practices and tools that enable maximum learning gains for a diverse and broad array of students irrespective of their prior educational performance and preparation.  Fasten your seatbelt for a ride to tomorrow.

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