Adaptive learning is a product to be sold. How?

1 Individualised learning

In the vast majority of contexts, language teaching is tied to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. This is manifested in institutional and national syllabuses which provide lists of structures and / or competences that all students must master within a given period of time. It is usually actualized in the use of coursebooks, often designed for ‘global markets’. Reaction against this model has been common currency for some time, and has led to a range of suggestions for alternative approaches (such as DOGME), none of which have really caught on. The advocates of adaptive learning programs have tapped into this zeitgeist and promise ‘truly personalized learning’. Atomico, a venture capital company that focuses on consumer technologies, and a major investor in Knewton, describes the promise of adaptive learning in the following terms: ‘Imagine lessons that adapt on-the-fly to the way in which an individual learns, and powerful predictive analytics that help teachers differentiate instruction and understand what each student needs to work on and why[1].’

This is a seductive message and is often framed in such a way that disagreement seems impossible. A post on one well-respected blog, eltjam, which focuses on educational technology in language learning, argued the case for adaptive learning very strongly in July 2013: ‘Adaptive Learning is a methodology that is geared towards creating a learning experience that is unique to each individual learner through the intervention of computer software. Rather than viewing learners as a homogenous collective with more or less identical preferences, abilities, contexts and objectives who are shepherded through a glossy textbook with static activities/topics, AL attempts to tap into the rich meta-data that is constantly being generated by learners (and disregarded by educators) during the learning process. Rather than pushing a course book at a class full of learners and hoping that it will (somehow) miraculously appeal to them all in a compelling, salubrious way, AL demonstrates that the content of a particular course would be more beneficial if it were dynamic and interactive. When there are as many responses, ideas, personalities and abilities as there are learners in the room, why wouldn’t you ensure that the content was able to map itself to them, rather than the other way around?[2]

Indeed. But it all depends on what, precisely, the content is – a point I will return to in a later post. For the time being, it is worth noting the prominence that this message is given in the promotional discourse. It is a message that is primarily directed at teachers. It is more than a little disingenuous, however, because teachers are not the primary targets of the promotional discourse, for the simple reason that they are not the ones with purchasing power. The slogan on the homepage of the Knewton website shows clearly who the real audience is: ‘Every education leader needs an adaptive learning infrastructure’[3].

2 Learning outcomes and testing

Education leaders, who are more likely these days to come from the world of business and finance than the world of education, are currently very focused on two closely interrelated topics: the need for greater productivity and accountability, and the role of technology. They generally share the assumption of other leaders in the World Economic Forum that ICT is the key to the former and ‘the key to a better tomorrow’ (Spring, Education Networks, 2012, p.52). ‘We’re at an important transition point,’ said Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2010, ‘we’re getting ready to move from a predominantly print-based classroom to a digital learning environment’ (quoted by Spring, 2012, p.58). Later in the speech, which was delivered at the time as the release of the new National Education Technology Plan, Duncan said ‘just as technology has increased productivity in the business world, it is an essential tool to help boost educational productivity’. The plan outlines how this increased productivity could be achieved: we must start ‘with being clear about the learning outcomes we expect from the investments we make’ (Office of Educational Technology, Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology, U.S. Department of Education, 2010). The greater part of the plan is devoted to discussion of learning outcomes and assessment of them.

Learning outcomes (and their assessment) are also at the heart of ‘Asking More: the Path to Efficacy’ (Barber and Rizvi (eds), Asking More: the Path to Efficacy Pearson, 2013), Pearson’s blueprint for the future of education. According to John Fallon, the CEO of Pearson, ‘our focus should unfalteringly be on honing and improving the learning outcomes we deliver’ (Barber and Rizvi, 2013, p.3). ‘High quality learning’ is associated with ‘a relentless focus on outcomes’ (ibid, p.3) and words like ‘measuring / measurable’, ‘data’ and ‘investment’ are almost as salient as ‘outcomes’. A ‘sister’ publication, edited by the same team, is entitled ‘The Incomplete Guide to Delivering Learning Outcomes’ (Barber and Rizvi (eds), Pearson, 2013) and explores further Pearson’s ambition to ‘become the world’s leading education company’ and to ‘deliver learning outcomes’.

It is no surprise that words like ‘outcomes’, ‘data’ and ‘measure’ feature equally prominently in the language of adaptive software companies like Knewton (see, for example, the quotation from Jose Ferreira, CEO of Knewton, in an earlier post). Adaptive software is premised on the establishment and measurement of clearly defined learning outcomes. If measurable learning outcomes are what you’re after, it’s hard to imagine a better path to follow than adaptive software. If your priorities include standards and assessment, it is again hard to imagine an easier path to follow than adaptive software, which was used in testing long before its introduction into instruction. As David Kuntz, VP of research at Knewton and, before that, a pioneer of algorithms in the design of tests, points out, ‘when a student takes a course powered by Knewton, we are continuously evaluating their performance, what others have done with that material before, and what [they] know’[4]. Knewton’s claim that every education leader needs an adaptive learning infrastructure has a powerful internal logic.

3 New business models

‘Adapt or die’ (a phrase originally coined by the last prime minister of apartheid South Africa) is a piece of advice that is often given these days to both educational institutions and publishers. British universities must adapt or die, according to Michael Barber, author of ‘An Avalanche is Coming[5]’ (a report commissioned by the British Institute for Public Policy Research), Chief Education Advisor to Pearson, and editor of the Pearson ‘Efficacy’ document (see above). ELT publishers ‘must change or die’, reported the eltjam blog[6], and it is a message that is frequently repeated elsewhere. The move towards adaptive learning is seen increasingly often as one of the necessary adaptations for both these sectors.

The problems facing universities in countries like the U.K. are acute. Basically, as the introduction to ‘An Avalanche is Coming’ puts it, ‘the traditional university is being unbundled’. There are a number of reasons for this including the rising cost of higher education provision, greater global competition for the same students, funding squeezes from central governments, and competition from new educational providers (such as MOOCs). Unsurprisingly, universities (supported by national governments) have turned to technology, especially online course delivery, as an answer to their problems. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, universities have attempted to reduce operating costs by looking for increases in scale (through mergers, transnational partnerships, international branch campuses and so on). Mega-universities are growing, and there are thirty-three in Asia alone (Selwyn Education in a Digital World New York: Routledge 2013, p.6). Universities like the Turkish Anadolu University, with over one million students, are no longer exceptional in terms of scale. In this world, online educational provision is a key element. Secondly, and not to put too fine a point on it, online instruction is cheaper (Spring, Education Networks 2012, p.2).

All other things being equal, why would any language department of an institute of higher education not choose an online environment with an adaptive element? Adaptive learning, for the time being at any rate, may be seen as ‘the much needed key to the “Iron Triangle” that poses a conundrum to HE providers; cost, access and quality. Any attempt to improve any one of those conditions impacts negatively on the others. If you want to increase access to a course you run the risk of escalating costs and jeopardising quality, and so on.[7]

Meanwhile, ELT publishers have been hit by rampant pirating of their materials, spiraling development costs of their flagship products and the growth of open educational resources. An excellent blog post by David Wiley[8] explains why adaptive learning services are a heaven-sent opportunity for publishers to modify their business model. ‘While the broad availability of free content and open educational resources have trained internet users to expect content to be free, many people are still willing to pay for services. Adaptive learning systems exploit this willingness by deeply intermingling content and services so that you cannot access one with using the other. Naturally, because an adaptive learning service is comprised of content plus adaptive services, it will be more expensive than static content used to be. And because it is a service, you cannot simply purchase it like you used to buy a textbook. An adaptive learning service is something you subscribe to, like Netflix. […] In short, why is it in a content company’s interest to enable you to own anything? Put simply, it is not. When you own a copy, the publisher completely loses control over it. When you subscribe to content through a digital service (like an adaptive learning service), the publisher achieves complete and perfect control over you and your use of their content.’

Although the initial development costs of building a suitable learning platform with adaptive capabilities are high, publishers will subsequently be able to produce and modify content (i.e. learning materials) much more efficiently. Since content will be mashed up and delivered in many different ways, author royalties will be cut or eliminated. Production and distribution costs will be much lower, and sales and marketing efforts can be directed more efficiently towards the most significant customers. The days of ELT sales reps trying unsuccessfully to get an interview with the director of studies of a small language school or university department are becoming a thing of the past. As with the universities, scale will be everything.

[2] (last accessed 13 January 2014)

[3] (last accessed 13 January 2014)

[4] MIT Technology Review, November 26, 2012 (last accessed 13 January 2014)

[7] Tim Gifford Taking it Personally: Adaptive Learning July 9, 2013 (last accessed January 13, 2014)

[8] David Wiley, Buying our Way into Bondage: the risks of adaptive learning services March 20,2013 (last accessed January 13, 2014)

  1. “Adaptive software is premised on the establishment and measurement of clearly defined learning outcomes”. And, it’s worth adding, these learning outcomes are typically articulated in terms of discrete language items, such as words and grammatical structures (i.e. linguistic competence) and not in terms of the capacity to deploy these appropriately and fluently for one’s own pragmatic purposes (i.e. communicative competence). Communicative competence is far too slippery and messy a construct to be shoe-horned into a syllabus whose outcomes a computer algorithm could evaluate, much less adapt to.

    The almost total absence of any mention of learning theory, and specifically language learning theory, on the Knewton and SmartSparrow sites is significant. All the more, surprising, therefore that the Knewton blog features a post on Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’, including mention of the notion of ‘scaffolding’ (, yet without any explanation as to how scaffolding might be achieved by ‘Knewton-powered learning applications’. Scaffolding, after all, is more than simply modelling a task, providing feedback on task achievement, and/or adjusting subsequent tasks in the light of this feedback. That is really just programmed instruction. Scaffolding has an enabling component, involving joint participation and mutual engagement on the part of the learner and the ‘better other’, until such time as the better other can hand over at least some of the activity to the learner. There is no algorithm in the world that can replicate the quality of shared attention and intersubjectivity that true scaffolding requires.

    The so-called ‘adaptivity’ of such programs is solely data-driven, not learning-driven. Learning, at least in Vygotskian terms, is a synchronized, interactive, co-constructed and social process, involving not only adaptation, but co-adaptation. As Diane Larsen-Freeman puts it, ‘Language development … occurs in social context. From a complexity theory perspective, such context contributes significantly to language development by affording possibilities for co-adaptation between interlocutors. As a learner interacts with another individual, their language resources are dynamically altered, as each adapts to the other – a mimetic process.’

    The failure (thus far) to develop a Turing Machine, i.e. a computer program that can have conversations with human interlocutors without the latter realizing that they are interacting with a computer, suggests that real computer-human co-adaptivity is a long way off. Meanwhile, quoting Auerbach again, ‘their dumbness will become ours’.

  2. philipjkerr says:

    Thanks for this, Scott. I’ll be getting on to problems with learning theory in a later post, although I could almost drop that post now! It’s interesting to note that Vygotsky is referred to by all sorts of people to legitimize what they are doing. It would also be interesting to do a diachronic study of an ELT corpus to see exactly how Vygotsky has been appropriated.
    As far as learning machines are concerned, adaptive learning is clearly more about Skinnerian machines than Turing machines!

    • Daniel says:

      Hi Philip (and Scott),

      While it may be some way off before a machine passes a true Turing test, we are already seeing AI fulfilling ‘narrow’ roles of human-like intelligence in a myriad of ways. Mitchell Kapor and Ray Kurzweil’s ‘long bet’ is a good place to compare both sides of the argument: In recent Turing tests, several chatbots have been able to fool some of the judges over short periods; often the test rules stipulate a 5-minute limit on the interaction.

      An English lesson typically lasts an hour. I wonder how long it will be before a machine can ‘fool’ a student over such a long time, saying things and interacting in the way Scott describes above. Perhaps the ability to fool an interlocutor is an irrelevance, though, for here in the developed world we are already learning to be content to interact with machines in the full knowledge that they are machines: we will answer a computer’s simple questions over the phone, for instance. And significantly, even us oldies will tolerate a computer program to take us through a short course of study (see our comments on Duolingo in an earlier post).

      Just as language learners have always been content to learn at least some things without a teacher (grammar references, dictionaries and audiolingual home learning methods spring to mind), so we can be certain these new adaptive tools will be taken up by people who like that sort of thing. But for the reasons Scott gives above, they cannot replace the human experiential side of language learning, such as face-to-face classes, language exchanges and other real-life interactions. The rise of these adaptive methods isn’t something to be worried about; the claims by the makers that they provide global solutions for learners most certainly IS.

      • philipjkerr says:

        Hi Daniel
        Thanks for the link. Interesting. It would be quite amusing to turn the question around a little: how many teachers can currently make their students think that they’re actually machines (and not humans)? And along the same lines, how many ELT coursebooks appear to have been written by machines? My second question isn’t entirely frivolous: some learning material is already machine-generated.
        It’s a reasonable bet that these new approaches will be taken up by people who like that sort thing, as you say. But it’s also a reasonable bet that millions (yes, millions) of people around the world simply won’t have any choice, in the same way as the huge numbers of US students using adaptive learning programs to study math(s) have no choice in the matter. The implications of these changes, not least for teachers (pressure on wages, working conditions and redundancies), but also for universities and other educational institutions, are things, I think, we should worry about.

      • Yes, you’re right, Daniel, in suggesting that these new adaptive tools will be able to satisfy the need for certain kinds of language-learning-related activities such as self-study, vocabulary memorization, mechanical practice and so on – of the type that traditionally has been provided by such best-selling books as Murphy’s English Grammar in Use – and that they will be able to do this in a way that, by replicating certain kinds of language-mediated interaction, will be more engaging and instructive than simply working through a pile of print-based materials, more engaging and instructive even than many of the mechanical drill-and-repeat lessons that are still offered by ‘real’ teachers. But, in the end, it’s hard to believe that most learners won’t hanker for the kind of interactivity (and co-adaptation) that is a prerequisite for authentic language use, and whose sine qua non is the uniquely human capacity for intersubjectivity, ie. ‘the sharing of affective, perceptual and reflective experiences between two or more subjects’ (Zlatev, 2008).

        As a side thought, the colonization of classrooms by computers might force some teachers to up their game. There’s a tired adage that’s been doing the rounds to the effect that ‘technology won’t replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will replace those who don’t’. This, of course, is baloney (as if technology made the difference between good and bad teachers). But it might be more correct to say that ‘teachers who teach like computers will, in the end, be replaced by computers’.

      • Daniel says:

        ‘Teachers who teach like computers will, in the end, be replaced by computers’. I don’t think there are many that are like computers by nature (you’d hope they’d have chosen other careers) but I’m sure there are plenty that, due to overwork, underpay, lack of training and any incentive to develop, won’t be doing much more than the ‘now-open-your-books-on-page-34’ approach to using up an hour in a classroom. I can see them eventually being ‘replaced’ in two ways:
        1) schools and companies being allowed to switch to cheaper online platforms (semi-presential and fully automated)
        2) students opting to switch off in class and find better technology-based alternatives to help them make progress. In private institutions this may mean fewer bums on seats.

        If 1) is already happening in schools in the US for Maths classes, as Philip suggests it is, are people protesting about it? Or are pupils and parents welcoming this move? What does this say about the quality of teaching in that subject? Or are people so bowled over by the promises that the likes of the Kahn Academy and other adaptive technologies are seen as a godsend to education?

        Those students who resort to 2) show a healthy level of autonomy by finding alternatives to poor tuition. And if they can apply critical thinking to their teachers, they should also be able to critically evaluate the quality of other means of learning. In the end, we rely on our students to discern quality and make choices as customers. If what we can provide in our engaging, affective and interactive lessons is what students really need to become better speakers, won’t they realise this themselves?

        One final point. I was recently asked to write some content for a module designed to be delivered on old-fashioned LCD mobiles (b&w, no images) for developing countries where a much more basic but just as fundamental mobile revolution is taking place. This is in areas where there may be no alternatives in order to learn English. Isn’t one argument in favour of free mobile platforms that they are better than no tuition whatsoever?

      • Jill Hadfield says:

        Agree absolutely

  3. As Selwyn (2011, Education and Technology) reminds us, the substitution of teachers by ‘teaching machines’ has long been predicted (witness Isaac Asimov’s 1950s story ‘The fun they had’). This does not require a quantum leap of imagination if your model of education is a transmissive one. Data is more quickly and easily assembled, stored, analysed, and delivered digitally than it is by ‘human’ means. Companies like Knewton trade on this fact. And on the fact that a lot of formal education in many contexts is sub-standard. But (as the example of Finland suggests) you don’t improve an education system by laying teachers off and replacing them with computers.

    True, students will vote with their feet, and many teachers will unwittingly encourage them by filling the sacrosanct classroom time and space with redundant technology: ‘Hey, guys, we can do this pairs activity on our mobile phones – what fun!’

    But I remember a time in the 1990s when many English language students in Spain deserted the conventional ‘academies’ for the snazzy new chains of ‘programmed instruction’ franchises (Wall Street, Opening etc) only to see their savings plundered and no real benefits to be gained from teacher-less classrooms. The franchises closed. Those students who still had some spare cash came back.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks for the Asimov story, Scott. I love the fact that the kids hate school in the future even more than they do now, not despite the fact that they’re learning from a machine but because of it. They learn at home, in isolation, and hanker for the social interaction that classrooms had in the good old days. We are all aware of the lack of community when everyone’s got their head in a mobile. This downside to adaptive education needs critiquing carefully. A sense of community may be the most significant factor in a learner’s motivation to learn.

    • Ted says:

      ‘Teaching machines’ and ‘programmed instruction’ reminds me of this old gem.
      “The formation of correct behavior. The student quickly learns to be right.”

  4. PHILIP says:

    Well Scott don’t forget the growing movement which sees computers with wireless connections as very harmful to children and teenagers health. Recently in France they’ve been proposed to be banned in Kindergartens. GREAT first step? Next they should be abolished on all mobile devices in classrooms. Do teachers want to harm the health of their students? My own students were staggered to learn about the dangers of using tablets all the time.

  5. Count the buzz words in this sentence (promoting an app start-up):

    “Mobile-first course-platform that enables delivery of any learning content in an adaptive, social and self-directed environment”.

    (Thanks to for this)

  6. philipjkerr says:

    Here’s an interesting quote from Picciano and Spring’s ‘The Great American Education-Industrial Complex’ in a section entitled ‘Technology and Ideology’ (p.53):
    ‘Since the federal government’s report, ‘A Nation at Risk’ (1983), there has been a marked emphasis on student productivity, which in turn relates to teacher productivity, which in turn relates to school and college productivity. Student outcomes as measured by standardized tests and assessments have become the norm for much of American K-12 education and they are becoming increasingly important in higher education. Furthermore, there is emphasis on rational, data-driven assessments of student performance at all levels of the education system. This approach moves public education toward a production line process for developing student skills and reduces the affective side of schooling. Technology has always been seen as an efficient tool for supporting production processes requiring speed and accuracy. As American education continues to shift from the affective to the efficient, technology becomes more important and desirable.’

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