Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

2013: The Year of Adaptive Learning

April 10, 2013

Adaptive learning offers an opportunity to enhance the instructional effectiveness of colleges and universities and to deliver more personalized pathways to students. This space remains nascent, often pinned between hyperbolic promises of technology-facilitated learning models and the challenge of understanding what exactly is an adaptive learning solution.  Education Growth Advisors (EGA), a strategic advisory and consulting firm and investment bank, recently published Learning to Adapt: Understanding the Adaptive Learning Supplier Landscape, a report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to serve as a guide for higher education decision-makers considering adaptive learning initiatives. The Impatient Optimists spoke with Adam Newman, founding and managing partner at EGA, about the current landscape of adaptive learning and where it’s headed.

What is the biggest misunderstanding about the adaptive learning landscape?

Despite much of the hype surrounding adaptive learning and other tech-enabled models in education, in reality, there is a great degree of nuance and thoughtfulness in how companies and organizations are serving the needs of colleges and universities. Of the eight suppliers we profiled in the paper, very few of them are directly competitive with one another in terms of where and how they might be deployed within a college or university setting.  The idea of a monolithic adaptive learning market or solution is a myth; in fact, we anticipate the diversity of supplier solutions will rapidly mirror the diversity of institutional contexts and needs across higher education.

Adaptive learning theories are not new, why has it taken so long for solutions to take hold in higher education?

Despite the fact that much of the research underpinning today’s adaptive solutions has been around for a while, we’re still at the very early stages of seeing those research findings combined with commercially viable solutions that have achieved traction with colleges and universities. We believe that the market is at a key juncture, where it will take a degree of nurturing by both sides of the equation – i.e., suppliers and institutions – to create greater market velocity. Suppliers need to partner with institutions to understand where and how their solutions can demonstrate efficacy and value, and colleges and universities need to demonstrate a willingness to explore this academic technology innovation, much as they did with learner management systems, lecture capture, and student response systems across the past decade.

What considerations should institutions undertake before implementing adaptive learning?

As with most processes, success in implementing adaptive learning solutions will be heavily influenced by selecting the right resource for the task and implementing with fidelity. In some colleges and universities, active involvement and buy-in from faculty and teaching and learning center professionals may be critical hurdles enabling successful implementation; in other scenarios, with more centralized curriculum development and/or decision-making apparatus, success may depend on effective coaching and training of front-line instructors responsible for using the curriculum. By understanding institutional context, colleges and universities will be better positioned to realize the potential benefits of adaptive learning, such as more personalized learning pathways, improved student performance and greater efficiency in resource allocation.

What institutions – and suppliers – cannot do is ignore strategies such as adaptive learning for personalizing the education experience for students and instructors alike. The inexorable march toward a learner-centric, outcomes orientation across the postsecondary landscape is here.

If 2012 was the MOOCs’ year for capturing venture capital and unrelenting media coverage, 2013 looks to be a big year for the adaptive learning space. A number of organizations are already seeking to raise funding for market expansion and continued product development efforts. We anticipate – and hope – that more capital and coverage will be allocated to this area, particularly as colleges and universities reflect on how best to incorporate the variety of academic and administrative innovations proliferating today to serve the diverse needs of their students even better.   

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