The Adaptive Paradigm: To Adapt, or not to Adapt?

487016177Dr. Phil Ice, VP of Research and Development at American Public University System

Adaptive learning is a current hot-button topic permeating higher education. In their quest to improve learning outcomes while increasing scalability, countless institutional administrators, program directors, and faculty are trying to determine which of the vast array of adaptive learning offerings may be the online learning equivalent of the Holy Grail.

I am more than a little skeptical of the claims being made by about 99 percent of today’s solution vendors. In many cases, their product offerings are nothing more than new window dressing applied to machine learning. Some other offerings may be of slightly higher quality, but involve such complex backend hard-coding that the cost of building out a new course offering can run up to six or seven figures. That means only one percent of the remaining solutions—currently on the market or under development— appear capable of delivering true adaptive learning, through provisioning individualized experiences and content pathways. My question is, are institutions prepared to accept the ramifications of the technology they have demanded?

Over the last ten centuries, universities were complicit in perpetuating the myth that the professoriate is a fountainhead of absolute knowledge. Granted, there was a great deal of lip service given to the idea of the “guide on the side” replacing the “sage on the stage,” however, all but the most constructivist faculty members tend to have some preconceived notions about the path by which learning will occur. In contrast, the adaptive paradigm suggests that there are multiple pathways that will lead to the same outcome. Accepting that this concept can actually work implies that faculty will actually have to walk the walk with respect to being facilitators, not just pay lip service to the ideal.

From an instructional design perspective, the idea of building out multiple iterations of learning objects that all satisfy the same goal, controverts assumptions of best practices being imbedded in increasingly iterated upon frameworks. And even if designers can be persuaded that constellations of assets are required to provide an adequate base for provisioning adaptive engines, administrators must be convinced that the equally large design and development budgets are justified.

As a final note, educators should make certain that adaptive learning is developed and implemented correctly, or expect a future predicated on promises as opposed to truly functional, meaningful solutions.

Dr. Phil Ice is the VP of Research and Development at American Public University System. His research is focused on the impact of new and emerging technologies on cognition in online learning environments. Work in this area has brought him international recognition in the form of four Online Learning Consortium Effective Practice of the Year Awards (2007, 2009, 2010 and 2013), the AliveTek/DLA Innovation in Online Distance Learning Administration Award, the Adobe Education Leadership Award, the USDLA’s Leadership in Online Learning Award, and induction into the Online Learning Consortium Fellows.





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