Part 5: platforms and more complex adaptive systems

Posted: January 30, 2014 in A guide to adaptive learning
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For some years now, universities and other educational institutions around the world have been using online learning platforms, also known as Learning Management Systems (LMSs) or Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs).Well-known versions of these include Blackboard  and Moodle. The latter is used by over 50% of higher education establishments in the UK (Dudeney & Hockly, How to Teach English with Technology Harlow, Essex: Pearson, 2007, p.53). These platforms allow course content – lectures, videos, activities, etc. – to be stored and delivered, and they allow institutions to modify courses to fit their needs. In addition, they usually have inbuilt mechanisms for assessment, tracking of learners, course administration and communication (email, chat, blogs, etc.). While these platforms can be used for courses that are delivered exclusively online, more commonly they are used to manage blended-learning courses (i.e. a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching). The platforms make the running of such courses relatively easy, as they bring together under one roof everything that the institution or teacher needs: ‘tools that have been designed to work together and have the same design ethos, both pedagogically and visually’ (Sharma & Barrett, Blended Learning Oxford: Macmillan, 2007, p.108).

The major ELT publishers all have their own LMSs, sometimes developed by themselves, sometimes developed in partnership with specialist companies. One of the most familiar, because it has been around for a long time, is the Macmillan English Campus. Campus offers both ready-made courses and a mix-and-match option drawing on the thousands of resources available (for grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and language skills development). Other content can also be uploaded. The platform also offers automatic marking and mark recording, ready-made tests and messaging options.


In the last few years, the situation has changed rapidly. In May 2013, Knewton, the world’s leading adaptive learning technology provider, announced a partnership with Macmillan ‘to build next-generation English Language Learning and Teaching materials’. In September 2013, it was the turn of Cambridge University Press to sign their partnership with Knewton ‘to create personalized learning experiences in [their] industry-leading ELT digital products’. In both cases, Knewton’s adaptive learning technology will be integrated into the publisher’s learning platforms. Pearson, which is also in partnership with Knewton (but not for ELT products), has invested heavily in its MyLab products.

Exactly what will emerge from these new business partnerships and from the continuously evolving technology remains to be seen. The general picture is, however, clearer. We will see an increasing convergence of technologies (administrative systems, educational platforms, communication technologies, big data analytics and adaptive learning) into integrated systems. This will happen first in in-company training departments, universities and colleges of higher education. It is clear already that the ELT divisions of companies like Pearson and Macmillan are beginning to move away from their reliance on printed textbooks for adult learners. This was made graphically clear at the 2013 IATEFL conference in Liverpool when the Pearson exhibition stand had absolutely no books on it (although Pearson now acknowledge this was a ‘mistake). In my next post, I will make a number of more specific predictions about what is coming.

  1. philipjkerr says:

    I’ll get on to the business side of things later, but Knewton’s financing is currently put at $104 million. Their latest agreement is with Cengage (but not for ELT products). You can keep abreast of these kinds of developments at

  2. Timely. My own university has just switched platforms from Blackboard to Canvas, for a variety of reasons, but one being the way Canvas reflects social networking interfaces, such as Facebook, and hence its easier navigability for a generation more familiar with such media. It’s true – it’s blessedly ‘cool’, design-wise, and much less clunky than BB.

    Usefully, too, there is a dedicated discussion list, where Canvas users are invited to make suggestions for improvements to its designers. One that caught my eye is that a ‘like’ button be incorporated into the online discussion boards, an idea that I am viscerally opposed to. (I don’t LIKE it!)

    My argument? ‘To follow the social networking route by incorporating ‘like’ buttons seems to me to be counter-productive, as it may have the effect of reducing participation, not increasing it. Research into participation in social media, such as Facebook, suggests as much: as Neil Selwyn writes (in Distrusting Educational Technology, 2014: 119) ‘There is currently little evidence that the majority of individuals use social media applications in especially participatory, interactive or even social ways’, and he adds, ‘Any consideration of the educational qualities of social media […] needs to recognise the transitory and contingent nature of online actions that are not underpinned by any lasting shared bond, obligation or lasting reciprocity’ (Selwyn 2014:118). Idly clicking a ‘like’ button, however much it might ‘validate’ the person who posted, is not participation in any but the most trivial sense.’

    What’s this got to do with your post? Only that I would add ‘social networking’ to your list of components of the ‘integrated systems’ you see on the horizon, and that social networking might be the ‘sweetener’ that masks the more insidious aspects of these systems. (Not that Facebook’s monetizing use of the data that it gathers isn’t insidious).

    In the 1980s Neil Postman railed against the way television was turning education into ‘an amusing activity’. I wonder if the same might be said today of Facebook (and its kind)?

  3. philipjkerr says:

    Yes, you’re absolutely right. I should have included mention of social networking in the list of functionalities. Social-networking ourselves to death? ‘Like’ buttons are obviously crass in this kind of context, and an ugly suggestion of some sort of democracy.

  4. Scott C says:

    It reminds me of the term “slacktivism”. Perhaps someone can come up with a term that reflects lazy learning online.

  5. “A room full of students with a tablet each and a teacher with an enthusiasm for social media is all that is required to engage developing minds.”

    Oh well, that’s that, then.

  6. Jill Hadfield says:

    Really enjoying this blog and discussion ,Philip (and Scott!)

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