If you’ve been keeping up with our blog posts on learning and development, you would have noticed that we’ve been placing quite a lot of emphasis on the individual when it comes to workplace training. For example, we’ve looked at how an employee can find online courses best suited to his/her different learning styles and needs, or how intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors come into play when employees need to learn both personally and professionally. In this post, we continue with our focus on the individual employee by looking at the concept of adaptive learning.
I’m pretty confident that as an L&D professional, you’ve been involved in one-on-one teaching at some point in your career. And I’m sure you’ll agree with me that, in many ways, this individualized and personalized format was a lot easier, and perhaps even more rewarding, than teaching a large group of learners. Why? Because you truly got to engage with your student. You could adjust the pace of the lesson, ask and answer questions, give feedback, point the learner in the right direction, address challenges as they arose, and give praise and encouragement when due.
I’ll never forget quite a few of my high school teachers saying the same thing: There are 30 of you and only one of me, and I can’t replicate myself – so sit down, keep quiet, and listen.
So yes, teaching a large group of people can definitely be a little frustrating – and frustrating for the learners too if the teaching method is one that takes a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Can you think back to your schooling years when there were A LOT of you in the class? When there was that one student who could simply sit back, draw doodles in their textbooks, pay zero attention – but somehow STILL managed to get the highest marks? And then there was that other student who concentrated and concentrated and did all the homework and asked questions, but they were still left asking, ‘wtf!’ at the end of each lesson.
So we’ve got the student who needs more challenging content and the student who needs more support, guidance, and feedback. But there’s one teacher, and he/she cannot give these students exactly what they need in real time.
So, in this post, we’ll take a look at adaptive learning, which is designed to be more personalized and tailored to individual learners’ needs, and recommend nine questions you, as an L&D professional, should ask before deciding to introduce adaptive learning (and its accompanying technology) to your organization.
What Is Adaptive Learning: A Quick Overview
I think it goes without saying that learning and technology in the workplace have changed quite drastically over the past few years. Senior Vice President of Skillsoft, John Ambrose, sums it up succinctly: ‘The workplace and workforce are rapidly-evolving dynamic entities. The speed of change … has created an ever-widening gap between employee learning needs and the organization’s ability to meet them.’ The workforce today – and indeed, the workforce of the future – is incredibly diverse in terms of working style, behaviors, values, expectations, and learning styles. And coupled with people entering the workforce with the ambition to learn skills on the job, training initiatives have never been more important.
To quote John Ambrose once again, ‘The challenge [for organizations] then becomes not just, ‘How do I offer my employees more learning programs?’ but rather, ‘How do I offer an employee the right learning programs in the right context?’’. And the best starting point for this? Offering employees more individualized learning where training is tailored, as much as possible, to each employee. In other words, enter adaptive learning.
You’ll find a variety of definitions on the internet, but the main idea is that adaptive learning, also known as adaptive teaching, is the delivery of custom or tailored learning experiences that address the unique needs of an individual through resources, pathways, and just-in-time feedback. It’s a teaching method that uses computer algorithms to orchestrate the interaction with the learner and then deliver customized content to address the learner’s needs.
There have been incredible breakthroughs in learning technologies over the years. From the development of Learning Management Systems (which, by the way, is now an over $5 billion market in size!) and the adoption of gamification techniques through to the impressive technologies of Virtual and Augmented Reality. However, despite this rapid evolution of innovative technologies, L&D professionals are still concerned with the issues of learner retention and how to motivate learners to learn.
This is where adaptive learning waltzes in through the door dressed boldly in all sorts of bright, attention-grabbing colours and says, ‘Hey! All eyes on me!’
L&D professionals are increasingly turning to adaptive learning in corporate training and development. Why? Well apart from what has already been mentioned, adaptive learning is about turning the learner from a passive recipient of information into someone who takes an active and collaborative role in their learning and development. And it can be about making one elearning course, for example, relevant for hundreds and thousands of users.
Adaptive Learning Examples
According to research by Towards Maturity, almost 80% of employees use the internet to support their learning efforts. But at least 25% of these employees stated that they can’t find what they are looking for on the internet in terms of their learning needs. This, naturally, leads to a lot of wasted time, effort, and productivity.
Adaptive learning, to put it simply, delivers results. Why? Because personalization pays off. Think about how Netflix, Spotify, or Apple Music recommend content and songs that you’d be interested in based on what you’ve previously watched or listened to. The content is tailored to YOU. (Aside: If it weren’t for Netflix recommending me things to watch, I would never have discovered Broadchurch starring the guy from Doctor Who. And Broadchurch was addictive, to say the least. So, it’s all about personalization!)
Adaptive learning works because it’s designed to meet individual needs, address context and employee training goals, and provide tailored content, tools, and experiences. And bonus: this all happens in real time. It’s live, in-the-moment, and contextual.
Here are some examples of adaptive learning systems that you can check out:
This platform lets L&D professionals create custom online learning solutions that engage and adapt to individual employees. With adaptive learning experiences, you can grow with your employees and scale across the entire organization. With Smart Sparrow, you can create custom learning modules that adapt to each learner based on their role, function, department, home office location, prior knowledge, previously completed training modules, and time with the company.
Acrobatiq endeavours to optimize teaching and learning based on cognitive science and educational theory from Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. The platform is designed to meet the needs of individual learners via interactive adaptive learning programs that are based on the learner’s individual knowledge and skill level.
This platform will help you to ‘conquer new learning landscapes with a smart authoring tool that lets you create all kinds of fully-responsive eLearning content’. With Adobe Captivate, you can also design immersive learning experiences using VR and 360-degree media assets.
So now we have the background info, let’s get to it: Time to question whether adaptive learning is the best fit for your organization and training programs.
Questions to Ask Before Introducing Adaptive Learning to Your Organization
What’s the difference between design adaptivity and algorithmic adaptivity? And do both work?
Yes, both of these ways work, and, as it currently stands, there’s no better way – each way simply depends on your teaching needs. You will need to conduct a training needs analysis in your organization to decide which one is the best fit. For a quick break down:
- Design adaptivity doesn’t depend on an algorithm to give the learner a customized experience. It is designed to take learners onto different paths based on their choices, following a ‘if this, then that’ approach.
- Algorithmic adaptivity uses an algorithm (no surprises here!) to provide a tailored learner experience. The algorithms can be created in different ways, but an adaptive learning algorithm revolves around two questions: What does the learner know, and based on this, what learning experience should be given to them next?
How effective is adaptive learning and what are its outcomes?
If used and implemented poorly, adaptive learning (and its accompanying technologies) can be a source of highly unnecessary confusion. And as an L&D professional, you need to make sure that you’re clued up on and confident about its aims and outcomes – including being sure about the adaptive learning technology/ system you’ve chosen to implement. You also need to understand that (in the words of Clark Quinn, executive director of Quinnovation) ‘you need to design the learning for the desired outcome’. This means that you need to understand your audience and use this understanding to determine what content you include.
What are the downfalls of adaptive learning?
Not all that glitters is gold as Shakespeare once said (actually he said, ‘All that glisters is not gold— Often have you heard that told,’ but this neither an English nor a History lesson). While adaptive learning comes with a myriad of revolutionary advantages, it does come with its pitfalls too.
For example, there’s A LOT of data collection going on, and a part of me personally believes we are becoming way too complacent about who or what is collecting our data. Also, and according to Elena Sanina, senior manager of Blended Learning at Aspire Public Schools, ‘there’s so much potential that we lose when we just think of student learning in terms of data and technology … For every ounce of technology, you need eight, 10 or 20 ounces of humanity (to make the tools work)’. If data becomes the dominant prescriber of how students learn, then there is definitely an element of humanity, spontaneity, or creativity that is lost in the teaching and learning process.
Also, Peter Burrows, journalist at EdSurge, gives a pretty good breakdown of some of the pitfalls of adaptive learning:
‘Changing teaching practices. Lack of evidence. Throw in tight budgets, privacy concerns about software that creates a digital record of [a learner’s] performance, and questions about the financial viability of some of the companies that make these tools.’
And here’s a few more examples of some downfalls that you should keep in mind:
- You will need to adjust to a new paradigm (this comes down to legacy issues and the proverbial you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You may have employees of the older generations who are simply resistant to change and new forms of learning).
- It can be costly depending on the software platform chosen.
- It’s dependent on network availability. Many adaptive learning software use real-time algorithms to make adjustments to the instruction, so if there is no internet connection or a lack of a stable connection, the system won’t be as effective as it should be.
- And if you choose not to use adaptive learning software, you will need to take on extra preparation work, which will be more time-consuming.
Which brings us to the next question … (Can you guess it? Of course you can!)
What are the benefits of adaptive learning and how can it benefit the organization?
Here’s a little list because lists are easier to read (and also because of tl;dr). So here’s what adaptive learning is good for. It:
- Makes learners more enthusiastic about learning and can motivate them to prioritize training (winning!).
- Frees up your time, as an L&D professional, so that you can focus on other important areas of your profession. You can even schedule smaller, in-person sessions due to more free time.
- Offers self-paced learning and empowers learners.
- Provides quality learning and has the potential to lead to mastery of content.
- Appeals to learners of all knowledge levels.
- Offers customized and instant feedback.
- Diminishes learning gaps.
- Improves employee competency.
- Creates greater engagement for both learners and instructors.
- Enables employees to learn in ways that are most effective to them.
- Saves time in the sense that adaptive learning relies on elearning that learners take using an LMS or a training website, therefore trainers don’t need to be present.
- Gives learners a head-start on their training and is ideal for continuing education.
- Demonstrates an ROI on training for the company.
But, having said this …
Do you have the time, budget, and know-how to implement adaptive learning?
A content system needs meticulous content development where content management, strategy, and engineering all have their unique roles to play. Content needs to be maintained. It needs to be reviewed for relevance and accuracy.
So, you need to decide if you have the time to develop and maintain content. Do you have enough know-how, or do you need to outsource other individuals or platforms? Do you have the budget for outsourcing or getting other teams involved? Implementing adaptive learning shouldn’t be done in an ad hoc manner. It requires a ‘learning engineering’ approach where learning science and technology come together to create a powerful learning experience. And you’ll probably need to attend training yourself on how to analyze data or how to integrate adaptive technology with instruction. Make sure you yourself are prepared to go the extra mile.
And this leads us to the next pretty important question …
Are you willing to place your organization’s learning into the hands of a third-party algorithm?
It all comes down to privacy concerns and data collection, doesn’t it? I mean, adaptive learning systems create a record of employees’ performance, and this can be seen as ‘invasive’ to many.
You’ll also need to let the software make real decisions about what learners should learn next. This may seem like you’re relinquishing a form of control a bit, but it’s also important to remember that adaptive learning software isn’t meant to replace you as the L&D professional – it’s meant to enhance or supplement how you teach.
As Cary Matsuoka, district superintendent who visits schools in California, says, ‘Data is important, but it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is quality teaching. So don’t forget that at the end of the day, you’re still the teacher or facilitator. You still have the power to determine the quality of teaching that is delivered.’
Also, keep in mind that most corporate training programs are designed to appeal to learners who prefer learning visually or kinesthetically. But what if some learners prefer to learn aurally? Or what happens if one of your learners is dyslexic? With adaptive learning, learners can begin their training through an elearning course and based on how each learner reacts to assessments within the course, the adaptive learning AI would make adjustments, giving learners either a visual/kinesthetic, auditory, or dyslexia-based model to learn from. So a third-party AI algorithm isn’t as scary or as bad as it sounds …
Now that we’ve discussed the pros, cons, and effectiveness of adaptive learning, it’s time for you to decide …
Should I use an adaptive learning platform? And which one?
Once again, this comes down to budget. Using an adaptive learning platform is not cheap, especially if you’re a smaller organization with a tighter budget. You’ll need to assess if your current training methods are working, and if so, then perhaps you can put implementing an adaptive learning system on the back-burner for a while.
You can also conduct a readiness assessment which will help you determine if your organization is currently capable of supporting adaptive learning technology (in terms of budget, infrastructure, and willingness of the organization to adopt a new strategy).
However, if you’ve got the budget and are seriously considering adopting an adaptive learning platform, then it’s important to do the research: what platforms are out there, which ones will be best suited to the organization’s needs, what are the pros and cons of each platform etc. Some very important questions to ask here include:
- Does the platform’s underlying pedagogy withstand scrutiny?
- Does the platform have enough variation in the material that will support valuable and appropriate knowledge transfer?
- Does the platform offer enough practice for skill development?
Get evidence first. See if it really works. Have a trial phase within your organization. There’s no need to jump the gun when it comes to implementing something costly. There are many products out there that aren’t actually resource- or evidence-based. So, consult experts if you need to. Look at reviews. Get in touch with edtech veterans through LEAP, Chicago, or consult the Pilot Network Program, for example. The PNP is designed to pilot and evaluate personalized learning technologies to share and scale what works.
Oh, and always make sure the platform offers a simple and seamless UX! Don’t make learning more difficult with a software application that offers an unintuitive UI where learners struggle to navigate their way through the program – that would defeat the purpose of making learning better and more enjoyable (oh, and if you’re ever looking for a software that helps users navigate a new software system, you might want to check out this software adoption platform called *cough* Userlane *cough*).
Above, I gave some examples of popular adaptive learning systems. There are, of course, others, including Cerego and CogBooks. It’ll be up to you to do your research.
But what about our existing LMS?
The great thing about many adaptive learning systems is that they can either be used as stand-alone solutions or combined with your existing LMS, meaning you can now have an LMS 2.0 called an Adaptive LMS without needing to change your existing software.
And finally, here’s your last question …
Do I REALLY need adaptive learning?
Keep in mind that employees aren’t static entities that are constantly behind the learning curve (I like the way this line was phrased in an article on engaging employees through adaptive learning). While your current training methods might offer some success and ROI, perhaps there’s room for even more growth and success with adaptive learning. Adaptive learning is designed to keep employees focused on what they don’t already know, which is both challenging and rewarding.
And while you can always give your learners ideas for training they can take based on their job roles and departments, adaptive learning adds that extra layer of personalization by:
- Tracking data, such as topics taken and quiz answers given.
- Assessing this information and comparing it against pre-programed benchmarks.
- Automatically adapting the following training with subject matter, difficult, and delivery.
So, measure up your current training against the pros of adaptive learning and decide if adaptive learning is something you REALLY need right now. Or if you can, take more time to evaluate its pros and perhaps implement it at a later stage.
Always remember that motivation in adult learners is more complex than just ‘I like learning this way’. Adaptive learning goes beyond this by truly challenging learners and giving them the power to take their learning and development into their own hands. With adaptive learning, learners can become experts in their field – and quickly too. And this is great for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
The Principles of Adaptive Learning Are Simple
Gallup reports that almost 90% of millennials in the workplace believe that development is important in a job, so I think the writing’s on the wall: a ‘good’ (make that awesome) job these days must include training and career development opportunities. But, obviously, not just any training. Training that is motivating. Engaging. Rewarding. Inspiring. Exciting. Relevant. On demand. Adaptable. Flexible. Companies need to provide training that adapts to the changing needs of a multi-generational workforce. And they need to create a culture of learning – one where learning is possible each and every day.
And let’s not forget that while changing times mean that we have greater access to information, which is at our fingertips, we also have to shoulder a much heavier cognitive load than before. And knowledge retention is the very first step towards mastery in any field. Retaining knowledge isn’t always the easiest, especially when we have to learn content that isn’t stimulating, engaging, enriching, or relevant. And when employees aren’t retaining knowledge and bridging that all too important learning-doing gap, this will cripple your ROI on training.
Adaptive learning means continuous learning. It also means learning that is, in many ways, highly effective. Whether you choose to implement it or not at your organization is, of course, up to you, but I believe that it’s revolutionizing the way we learn and will be here to stay, and evolve, for quite a while to come. Perhaps it’s time to up your game and consider harnessing the power of an adaptive learning approach as opposed to training programs based on more standardized company policies. Let’s end this post with a quote, because who doesn’t love a good ol’ quote:
Give employees the ability to learn when they want, how they want, and what they want, and the learning outcomes will be far more positive than forcing employees to learn in accordance to rigid corporate training policies and dictates. – Nikos Andriotis, author at efrontlearning
And always remember: You, as an L&D professional, aren’t replaceable. Adaptive learning is here to help you, not remove you. You will still have your training sessions etc. Adaptive learning online through elearning will simply give employees a head start on training and will help them on their continuous learning journey.
PS Because gamification is such a huge part of L&D, I like to throw in a few ‘games’ into our blog posts from time to time. In this post, I threw in a few super cliche sayings – can you find them all? 😉
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