The drive towards adaptive learning is being fuelled less by individual learners or teachers than it is by commercial interests, large educational institutions and even larger agencies, including national governments. How one feels about adaptive learning is likely to be shaped by one’s beliefs about how education should be managed.
Huge amounts of money are at stake. Education is ‘a global marketplace that is estimated conservatively to be worth in excess of $5 trillion per annum’ (Selwyn, Distrusting Educational Technology 2013, p.2). With an eye on this pot, in one year, 2012, ‘venture capital funds, private equity investors and transnational corporations like Pearson poured over $1.1 billion into education technology companies’ Knewton, just one of a number of adaptive learning companies, managed to raise $54 million before it signed multi-million dollar contracts with ELT publishers like Macmillan and Cambridge University Press. In ELT, some publishing companies are preferring to sit back and wait to see what happens. Most, however, have their sights firmly set on the earnings potential and are fully aware that late-starters may never be able to catch up with the pace-setters.
The nexus of vested interests that is driving the move towards adaptive learning is both tight and complicated. Fuller accounts of this can be found in Stephen Ball’s ‘Education Inc.’ (2012) and Joel Spring’s ‘Education Networks’ (2012) but for this post I hope that a few examples will suffice.
Leading the way is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private foundation with endowments of almost $40 billion. One of its activities is the ‘Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program’ which seeks to promote adaptive learning and claims that the adaptive learning loop can defeat the iron triangle of costs, quality and access (referred to in The Selling Points of Adaptive Learning, above). It is worth noting that this foundation has also funded Teach Plus, an organisation that has been lobbying US ‘state legislatures to eliminate protection of senior teachers during layoffs’ (Spring, 2012, p.51). It also supports the Foundation for Excellence in Education, ‘a major advocacy group for expanding online instruction by changing state laws’ (ibid., p.51). The chairman of this foundation is Jeb Bush, brother of ex-president Bush, who took the message of his foundation’s ‘Digital Learning Now!’ program on the road in 2011. The message, reports Spring (ibid. p.63) was simple: ‘the economic crises provided an opportunity to reduce school budgets by replacing teachers with online courses.’ The Foundation for Excellence in Education is also supported by the Walton Foundation (the Walmart family) and iQity, a company whose website makes clear its reasons for supporting Jeb Bush’s lobbying. ‘The iQity e-Learning Platform is the most complete solution available for the electronic search and delivery of curriculum, courses, and other learning objects. Delivering over one million courses each year, the iQity Platform is a proven success for students, teachers, school administrators, and district offices; as well as state, regional, and national education officials across the country.’
Another supporter of the Foundation for Excellence in Education is the Pearson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Pearson. The Pearson Foundation, in its turn, is supported by the Gates Foundation. In 2011, the Pearson Foundation received funding from the Gates Foundation to create 24 online courses, four of which would be distributed free and the others sold by Pearson the publishers (Spring, 2012, p.66).
The campaign to promote online adaptive learning is massively funded and extremely well-articulated. It receives support from transnational agencies such as the World Bank, WTO and OECD, and its arguments are firmly rooted in the discourse ‘of international management consultancies and education businesses’ (Ball, 2012, p.11-12). It is in this context that observers like Neil Selwyn connect the growing use of digital technologies in education to the corporatisation and globalisation of education and neo-liberal ideology.
Adaptive learning also holds rich promise for those who can profit from the huge amount of data it will generate. Jose Fereira, CEO of Knewton, acknowledges that adaptive learning has ‘the capacity to produce a tremendous amount of data, more than maybe any other industry’. He continues ‘Big data is going to impact education in a big way. It is inevitable. It has already begun. If you’re part of an education organization, you need to have a vision for how you will take advantage of big data. Wait too long and you’ll wake up to find that your competitors (and the instructors that use them) have left you behind with new capabilities and insights that seem almost magical.’ Rather paradoxically, he then concludes that ‘we must all commit to the principle that the data ultimately belong to the students and the schools’. It is not easy to understand how such data can be both the property of individuals and, at the same time, be used by educational organizations to gain competitive advantage.
The existence and exploitation of this data may also raise concerns about privacy. In the same way that many people do not fully understand the extent or purpose of ‘dataveillance’ by cookies when they are browsing the internet, students cannot be expected to fully grasp the extent or potential commercial use of the data that they generate when engaged in adaptive learning programs.
Selwyn (Distrusting Educational Technology 2013, p.59-60) highlights a further problem connected with the arrival of big data. ‘Dataveillance’, he writes, also ‘functions to decrease the influence of ‘human’ experience and judgement, with it no longer seeming to matter what a teacher may personally know about a student in the face of his or her ‘dashboard’ profile and aggregated tally of positive and negative ‘events’. As such, there would seem to be little room for ‘professional’ expertise or interpersonal emotion when faced with such data. In these terms, institutional technologies could be said to be both dehumanizing and deprofessionalizing the relationships between people in an education context – be they students, teachers, administrators or managers.’
Adaptive learning in online and blended programs may well offer a number of advantages, but these will need to be weighed against the replacement or deskilling of teachers, and the growing control of big business over educational processes and content. Does adaptive learning increase the risk of transforming language teaching into a digital diploma mill (Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The automation of higher education 2002)?
Evgeney Morozov’s 2013 best-seller, ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’, takes issue with our current preoccupation with finding technological solutions to complex and contentious problems. If adaptive learning is being presented as a solution, what is the problem that it is the solution of? In Morosov’s analysis, it is not an educational problem. ‘Digital technologies might be a perfect solution to some problems,’ he writes, ‘but those problems don’t include education – not if by education we mean the development of the skills to think critically about any given issue’ (Morosov, 2013, p.8). Only if we conceive of education as the transmission of bits of information (and in the case of language education as the transmission of bits of linguistic information), could adaptive learning be seen as some sort of solution to an educational problem. The push towards adaptive learning in ELT can be seen, in Morosov’s terms, as reaching ‘for the answer before the questions have been fully asked’ (ibid., p.6).
The world of education has been particularly susceptible to the dreams of a ‘technical fix’. Its history, writes Neil Selwyn, ‘has been characterised by attempts to use the ‘power’ of technology in order to solve problems that are non-technological in nature. […] This faith in the technical fix is pervasive and relentless – especially in the minds of the key interests and opinion formers of this digital age. As the co-founder of the influential Wired magazine reasoned more recently, ‘tools and technology drive us. Even if a problem has been caused by technology, the answer will always be more technology’ (Selwyn, Education in a Digital World 2013, p.36).
Morosov cautions against solutionism in all fields of human activity, pointing out that, by the time a problem is ‘solved’, it becomes something else entirely. Anyone involved in language teaching would be well-advised to identify and prioritise the problems that matter to them before jumping to the conclusion that adaptive learning is the ‘solution’. Like other technologies, it might, just possibly, ‘reproduce, perpetuate, strengthen and deepen existing patterns of social relations and structures – albeit in different forms and guises. In this respect, then, it is perhaps best to approach educational technology as a ‘problem changer’ rather than a ‘problem solver’ (Selwyn, Education in a Digital World 2013, p.21).
 Philip McRae Rebirth of the Teaching Machine through the Seduction of Data Analytics: This time it’s personal April 14, 2013 http://philmcrae.com/2/post/2013/04/rebirth-of-the-teaching-maching-through-the-seduction-of-data-analytics-this-time-its-personal1.html (last accessed 13 January 2014)
 http://www.knewton.com/blog/ceo-jose-ferreira/big-data-in-education/ (last accessed 13 January, 2104)