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Adaptive Learning: Success Breeds Success

In an ongoing quest to better understand how Education can be improved utilising both new technologies and smarter ways of working and learning, I've been reading up on the Adaptive Learning approach utilised by Knewton. The snippets below, from a recent post about how to make students smarter, provided the inspiration for the commentary that follows. In other areas of recent research, the work done by the Kahn Academy and that of Peter Norvig have also inspired. The combined reading leads me along the path of how (big) data can be used to get a much more accurate view of real learning, both from the student and the teachers' perspective.
In order to improve student performance and self-esteem, we need to break this cycle and prove that intelligence is malleable and that students can control their academic destiny. Adaptive learning, a teaching method premised on the idea that the curriculum should adapt to each user, is the sort of limitless technology that is up to the challenge of untangling the cyclical effects of self-perception and social expectation on students’ academic performance.
I like how the Kahn Academy platform is based on data analysis and that a teacher and pupil can easily identify the knowledge gaps. The idea that all 30 students in a room will understand the information at the same time is completely flawed, even more so today when technology can provide rich statistical data to support on an individual basis.

In most cases the teachers' hands are tied, as they themselves are guided by a strict curriculum, and if they want to keep to their jobs it must be followed to the letter. In order to keep the curriculum on track, teachers have to move on, which in turn leaves obvious 'knowledge gaps'. As time goes by those gaps are the fundamental building blocks the student needs in order to advance to the next phase of understanding, without them being filled complete understand is not possible.

Both Kahn and Knewton are addressing these issues in innovative ways utilising advanced statistical analysis that enables the learner to plug those gaps in ways that best suit and make sense to them. Technology's role is to supports this process by making sense of how best that individual student likes to learn, identifying where problems occur and routing them back through the foundational work to ensure the gaps get plugged before more content overwhelms the student. I'm inspired by both systems.
Here are 5 ways in which continuous adaptive learning can promote the idea that intelligence is malleable and help each student control his or her academic destiny.
The concept that students are in control of their own destiny is very important. Once a student begins to understand they have the reins in their own hands and they are able to steer the course, and that the system is there to support them, as opposed to it being there only to be adhered to, motivation to fully engage and achieve changes. Students, and in the broader sense, learners, need do it for themselves and not for the reason they 'have' to - they also need to take responsibility for that in a supported environment - Education!
1) Pace of feedback. "If neither success nor failure is final, the learning process becomes geared toward exploration and long-term development rather than grades and crash studying. All this shifts the emphasis from talent to effort and promotes the idea that one can control his own ability."
This is one of my favourite quotes "neither success nor failure is final", lending itself fully to a life long learning mentality, and that the student is actually responsible for his or her own learning. With this approach the necessary buy-in is created for a sustainable creative future of those who are willing and able to make possible what they aspire to, and to what they can imagine.
2) Targeted focus. "By allowing each student to focus on what he or she most needs to work on at any given point, adaptive learning helps students concentrate on maximizing their own individual potential rather than meeting externally defined one-size-fits-all standards; this encourages them to harness a deeper and more intrinsic motivation."
Knowing where the specific knowledge gaps are is crucial, because without this information much time and effort it's misspent relearning mastered sections of work; it also ensures the student to remain highly focus which leads to increase motivation. There is nothing more boring than listening to a lesson that one has already demonstrated mastery in. Unfortunately, this is how the current system of public education operates. There is little or no opportunity for a student to fill their own gaps as the tide of curriculum waits for nobody; it's still very much a one-size-fits-all public system that is failing today's learners. Utilising technology and the resulting data in innovative ways is the disruptor and the enabler.
3) Flexibility of presentation. "After discovering how each student learns best, an adaptive system might show one student a video, another a diagram and another an essay on the same subject."
The blending of preferred choice also makes perfect sense, but of course is only possible once it is known. A teacher managing a class of 30 students, pressured by the timetable, has little chance to personalise the content, so the gaps continue to exist. The more data the student gives to the system, the more the technology can learn and 'adapt' to their preferred method of learning.  I would however caution that the technology should not only support students in their preferred ways of learning, but should also provide a balanced mix of methods; understanding the dynamics of that balance is easier when analysing the data, especially when visualisation techniques are applied.
4) Productive social opportunities. "Through an adaptive learning system, teachers can use data regarding performance, learning style, and preferences to create cohorts of students who complement each other academically."
Peer to peer is how Education scales in the 21st century, and how it creates the inclusive feeling of being part of the bigger picture - you teach and you learn, you are valuable and valued. One teacher to thirty students has never been a viable scenario, the dynamics of thirty to thirty changes the entire game plan. Everyone is a learner and a teacher and the conditions need to be created for peer to peer support to occur. Using data analysis it is possible to identify who can complement one another, which should in turn create social opportunities for students to work with those who previously were not considered 'part of their circle'.

I've seen this occur recently with my daughter. There was a boy at school who was 'not' in her tribe, so to speak, until it was identified that he loved music and played drums really well. Suddenly the topic bonded them and a relationship based on the desire to support one another around that topic developed. The technology can aid this process, individualising learning in ways that previously would have been missed, or would have occurred more often than not by chance.
5) Improving self-awareness. "Self-awareness is ultimately what allows students to rebound from failure and understand that their poor performance is not a reflection of innate ability but rather a misunderstanding of something very specific."
The final point here is so important. The student is in the hands of the 'Education' system at a time when they are at their most impressionable. It is isn't that the students aren't able to learn, but more that the system is not designed well enough to produce the best for the 'individuals' it has responsibility for. The current system is outdated and comes from a a time in history where the economic outcomes required by industry and commerce were very different. Creative thinkers who have learnt how to learn and how to solve problems, both individually and as part of network, are now the real purpose of education.

I tip my hat to those pioneering processes and technology platforms like Knewton and Kahn Academy and those who are pushing back against how Education is currently provided, change is needed and quicker than it is currently occurring.

The final two quotes are from a Mashable interview with the founder of Knewton, Jose Ferreira, and I think they sum up this post rather well.
“We use data to make your education better, that’s it.”
Doesn't get clearer than that, does it!
“We know everything about what you know and how you learn best because we get so much data. We can predict failure in advance, which means we can pre-remediate it in advance.”
I have great hope that the future of learning is going to be very bright. There are so many committed and talented innovators and educators who through their determination are finding smarter ways of working, living and ultimately learning.

If you have questions or comments please reply below, and if you enjoyed the post please consider sharing it with friends, thanks.

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Image source: Photo credit: Barrett Web Coordinator / Foter / CC BY

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