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Adaptive Learning Technology: What it is, how it works, and why it’s being used

The right adaptive educational technology provides a student-centered learning experience

Students need differentiated learning experiences to meet key goals and standards. Truly adaptive technology can give students an optimally personalized experience. This web seminar, originally broadcast on December 3, 2013, featured a blended learning and adaptive technology expert who shared data about the use of adaptive learning technology, defined what true adaptive technology looks like, explored the pedagogical implications of adaptive technology, and discussed how adaptive technology empowers students to authentically learn and deepen their understanding.

Senior Director of Curriculum Design
DreamBox Learning

The concept of adaptive learning technology has been discussed and pursued for decades. The idea that digital technology could function as an electronic tool helping students work at their own pace to achieve greater content knowledge has been the basis of a number of approaches to designing adaptive educational software. Apart from technology, teachers have always employed their own adaptive expertise to meet students right where they are. In these instances, typically a teacher would give students a diagnostic test, provide instruction and assignments, and then reassess the student to determine progress. In a classroom with 30 or 40 students, teachers encounter logistical challenges to creating continual, individualized learning plans and lessons for each student.

For example, there isn’t enough time or enough data to adapt for every student during every class. Because teachers need to be adaptive to support learning, we should expect learning software to be adaptive. Learning is intensely personal and should therefore be differentiated for individuals whether they are working with a teacher or with a software program. There are an increasing number of emerging educational technologies that incorporate elements of adaptivity. They are proving that personalized student assessment and instruction, aligned with learning standards and desired outcomes, can be successfully delivered on an ongoing basis.

To provide educators with more information about these trends, the first K12 survey specifically focused on adaptive learning technology was recently conducted by Tech & Learning and commissioned by DreamBox. The goal of the survey was to determine how many educators are currently using programs they believe are adaptive and to understand educators’ perception of adaptive learning. Therefore the survey and report explored characteristics of adaptive learning and the pedagogical implications of adaptive technologies. To help educators make informed decisions, the report attempts to clarify the levels and types of adaptivity currently available in adaptive learning programs. To ensure educators had the same frame of reference, this definition of adaptive learning technologies was used in the survey: “Adaptive learning systems are software-based technologies that automatically customize curriculum to the knowledge level of the learner. The algorithms actively track and assess student performance to provide feedback to the teacher and student about the student’s progress on an ongoing basis.”

Three thousand educators and administrators responded to the survey. Forty percent reported they were using adaptive learning software. Some findings include:

  • 70 percent cite intervention as the No. 1 reason they use adaptive learning software, using it as a way to close gaps in student understanding
  • 40 percent use it for enrichment
  • 49 percent use adaptive learning software as a supplement to curriculum
  • 42 percent use it as core curriculum
  • 80 percent use adaptive math software
  • 78 percent use adaptive reading software

The survey found adaptive software is most frequently used with students in grades 3-5, which likely is a result of standardized testing starting in third grade. Grades 6-8 were the next most frequently reported grade band using adaptive software, which may be due to the frequent need for intervention in middle school. One of the most important findings in the survey is that – even among educators who report using adaptive learning software – there is a significant misunderstanding about which programs are truly adaptive and which simply have elements of adaptivity.

For example, some elements of adaptivity that might be included in software, but are not classified as fully adaptive learning are:

  • Adaptive testing: If a student answers a question correctly, the next question will be harder. If a student answers a question incorrectly, the next question will be easier.  
  • Assessment only: A program assesses different students on different standards. But the learning and lessons are not adaptive, only the different post-learning assessments of students are given.
  • Test prep only: A program focuses only on skill development and recommending skill practice without supporting conceptual development.
  • Requiring teachers to assign content: Teacher action in the adaptive program – not the software – is how the program adapts for students.

A fully adaptive learning program should be designed with one primary goal: to cause learning. Adaptivity is not the goal; it is a necessary means to cause learning. You cannot have a true learning platform unless it adapts in meaningful ways. Adaptivity is required for students to learn because students need to revise and improve their thinking. Therefore an adaptive learning program needs to engage students in critical thinking that can be revised and improved. To learn and understand, students must be empowered to think independently, whether in classrooms or when using technology. Therefore digital content needs to empower and require students to think independently, and then adapt to their thinking. These learning and curriculum design requirements necessitate certain pedagogical approaches used in the software.

In their recent publication, “Alive in the Swamp,” Michael Fullan and Katelyn Donnelly point out that many learning technologies have a problem with pedagogy: “Many of the innovations, particularly those that provide online content and learning materials, use basic pedagogy – most often in the form of introducing concepts by video instruction and following up with a series of progression exercises and tests” (p. 25, Fullan & Donnelly, 2013). At DreamBox Learning, we developed an intelligent adaptive learning platform and offer a rigorous math program for students in pre-K through grade five. We have over 1,200 lessons available online and on the iPad that use a more engaging pedagogy than Fullan and Donnelly describe. At DreamBox, we believe that learning technology should engage learners as active thinkers. If software is going to be truly adaptive, it will need more insight into student performance and thinking than simply monitoring how well students remember something they have just been shown how to do.

There are several great learning principles documented in “Schooling by Design,“ by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. One of them is “Understandings cannot be given; they must be engineered so that learners see for themselves the power of an idea for making sense of things” (p. 118, Wiggins & McTighe, 2007). Empowered students know they have ideas and are excited to put them into action. Lessons in DreamBox do not show a student explicitly how to solve a problem by starting with a direct explanation. Instead, DreamBox lessons engage students in contexts and situations that empower them to make sense of concepts and skills. Students consider the situation or problem and know their intuitive ideas are valuable for figuring out the problem. DreamBox’s intelligent adaptive engine differentiates for each student and offers millions of unique paths by responding to students’ specific answers and mistakes. DreamBox’s adaptive platform doesn’t simply contain harder or easier problems or only adaptive assessment. It responds to the way students interact with digital manipulatives and represent their thinking when solving problems. A visual, interactive, and engaging digital environment supports students as they persist, progress, and demonstrate their proficiency.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: