Saturday, 7 December 2013

Rethinking Adaptive Learning

The buzzwords in education circles recently are ‘Adaptive Learning’. Computers are to analyze how a student responds to different presentation styles and serve up more of what works best.

'Adaptive learning is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students' learning needs, as indicated by their responses to questions and tasks.'

Sounds good so far. This should mean that students will learn more efficiently and presumably at their own pace. The argument goes that the learning gaps between higher and lower achievers will close and that students will have increased confidence.

Still sounds good. But is this all there is to learning? Is successful learning what happens when presentation of content is absorbed and the student can complete some practice exercises?

The teacher presents something new, the student practices it and it is supposed that the student is now able to use the new 'knowledge' in real world situations. I failed to learn French this way. My teacher presented some new grammar, we did a load of practice exercises but (in our case at least) we never got to use what we learned. I experienced practicing a rule. I did not experience using French. The grammar and the vocabulary may as well have been numbers or symbols.

If we assume that ‘learning’ is the ability to hold onto and to be able to regurgitate enough knowledge in order to pass a standard test, then the answer is yes. For governments eager to improve PISA rankings, the answer may be yes.

If however, we believe that all real learning starts with experience, we need to question the role that Adaptive Technology can take within a learning cycle that might look like this:

The student experiences something new, conceptualizes how new knowledge fits in their world, practices and then applies the concept. The model is a circle allowing new experiences to affect an adjustment of concepts. The teacher's role is to facilitate experience and provide opportunities for practice and application.

Here are 5 things that we need to be careful of when building Adaptive Technology into the learning process:

  1. We must take care not to mistake interaction with technology for interaction with content. Interactivity should be included for pedagogically sound reasons. Gamification, for example, is only relevant if it makes the understanding and absorption of what is to be learned more relevant, easier to understand and motivational.
  1. We must not throw out pedagogy that we have worked so hard to refine for the sake of introducing technology. Adaptive Technology relies on identifying a student’s Learning Style, and yet recent evidence suggests that the Learning Styles Inventory (LSI) has serious flaws.
  1. We must not reintroduce a failed model of teaching and learning. There is a danger that because the P-P-P model of teaching suits Adaptive Technology that we will accept outmoded models as inevitable.
  1. The student should be in control of the learning process – not a computer. So called ‘self-directed learning’ requires the student to figure things out themselves (or experience learning) and not have a computer serve up only one type of question that the computer believes the student is capable of answering.
  1. We must label new technologies as what they are and NOT as what we would like them to be. Adaptive Technology presents content in the way that the computer deems a student will find easiest to reproduce. It will then serve up practice exercises. And that is it. The computer cannot tell if a student can apply this knowledge in the real world, cannot judge a student’s engagement or happiness and cannot determine a student’s talents.

So let’s call it what it is – Adaptive Practice. That’s better! Now I feel more comfortable with it. Adaptive Practice can fit very nicely into an E-C-P-A model of learning and most other models I can think of.

The danger of ‘Adaptive Learning’ then is in the label. We are given the impression that this is a solution that will change the way we learn and that all we need to do is sit students in front of a machine and the rest will take care of itself.

For learning is to be rich and meaningful, let’s recognize that Adaptive Practice may have a place in the process but is not in any way sufficient on its own as a model of learning.
  'Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.'  Roger Levin

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