Posts Tagged ‘education leaders’

One could be forgiven for thinking that there are no problems associated with adaptive learning in ELT. Type the term into a search engine and you’ll mostly come up with enthusiasm or sales talk. There are, however, a number of reasons to be deeply skeptical about the whole business. In the post after this, I will be considering the political background.

1. Learning theory

Jose Fereira, the CEO of Knewton, spoke, in an interview with Digital Journal[1] in October 2009, about getting down to the ‘granular level’ of learning. He was referencing, in an original turn of phrase, the commonly held belief that learning is centrally concerned with ‘gaining knowledge’, knowledge that can be broken down into very small parts that can be put together again. In this sense, the adaptive learning machine is very similar to the ‘teaching machine’ of B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who believed that learning was a complex process of stimulus and response. But how many applied linguists would agree, firstly, that language can be broken down into atomised parts (rather than viewed as a complex, dynamic system), and, secondly, that these atomised parts can be synthesized in a learning program to reform a complex whole? Human cognitive and linguistic development simply does not work that way, despite the strongly-held contrary views of ‘folk’ theories of learning (Selwyn Education and Technology 2011, p.3).

machine

Furthermore, even if an adaptive system delivers language content in personalized and interesting ways, it is still premised on a view of learning where content is delivered and learners receive it. The actual learning program is not personalized in any meaningful way: it is only the way that it is delivered that responds to the algorithms. This is, again, a view of learning which few educationalists (as opposed to educational leaders) would share. Is language learning ‘simply a technical business of well managed information processing’ or is it ‘a continuing process of ‘participation’ (Selwyn, Education and Technology 2011, p.4)?

Finally, adaptive learning is also premised on the idea that learners have particular learning styles, that these can be identified by the analytics (even if they are not given labels), and that actionable insights can be gained from this analysis (i.e. the software can decide on the most appropriate style of content delivery for an individual learner). Although the idea that teaching programs can be modified to cater to individual learning styles continues to have some currency among language teachers (e.g. those who espouse Neuro-Linguistic Programming or Multiple Intelligences Theory), it is not an idea that has much currency in the research community.

It might be the case that adaptive learning programs will work with some, or even many, learners, but it would be wise to carry out more research (see the section on Research below) before making grand claims about its efficacy. If adaptive learning can be shown to be more effective than other forms of language learning, it will be either because our current theories of language learning are all wrong, or because the learning takes place despite the theory, (and not because of it).

2. Practical problems

However good technological innovations may sound, they can only be as good, in practice, as the way they are implemented. Language laboratories and interactive whiteboards both sounded like very good ideas at the time, but they both fell out of favour long before they were technologically superseded. The reasons are many, but one of the most important is that classroom teachers did not understand sufficiently the potential of these technologies or, more basically, how to use them. Given the much more radical changes that seem to be implied by the adoption of adaptive learning, we would be wise to be cautious. The following is a short, selected list of questions that have not yet been answered.

  • Language teachers often struggle with mixed ability classes. If adaptive programs (as part of a blended program) allow students to progress at their own speed, the range of abilities in face-to-face lessons may be even more marked. How will teachers cope with this? Teacher – student ratios are unlikely to improve!
  • Who will pay for the training that teachers will need to implement effective blended learning and when will this take place?
  • How will teachers respond to a technology that will be perceived by some as a threat to their jobs and their professionalism and as part of a growing trend towards the accommodation of commercial interests (see the next post)?
  • How will students respond to online (adaptive) learning when it becomes the norm, rather than something ‘different’?

3 Research

Technological innovations in education are rarely, if ever, driven by solidly grounded research, but they are invariably accompanied by grand claims about their potential. Motion pictures, radio, television and early computers were all seen, in their time, as wonder technologies that would revolutionize education (Cuban, Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920 1986). Early research seemed to support the claims, but the passage of time has demonstrated all too clearly the precise opposite. The arrival on the scene of e-learning in general, and adaptive learning in particular, has also been accompanied by much cheer-leading and claims of research support.

Examples of such claims of research support for adaptive learning in higher education in the US and Australia include an increase in pass rates of between 7 and 18%, a decrease of between 14 and 47% in student drop-outs, and an acceleration of 25% in the time needed to complete courses[2]. However, research of this kind needs to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. First of all, the research has usually been commissioned, and sometimes carried out, by those with vested commercial interests in positive results. Secondly, the design of the research study usually guarantees positive results. Finally, the results cannot be interpreted to have any significance beyond their immediate local context. There is no reason to expect that what happened in a particular study into adaptive learning in, say, the University of Arizona would be replicated in, say, the Universities of Amman, Astana or anywhere else. Very often, when this research is reported, the subject of the students’ study is not even mentioned, as if this were of no significance.

The lack of serious research into the effectiveness of adaptive learning does not lead us to the conclusion that it is ineffective. It is simply too soon to say, and if the examples of motion pictures, radio and television are any guide, it will be a long time before we have any good evidence. By that time, it is reasonable to assume, adaptive learning will be a very different beast from what it is today. Given the recency of this kind of learning, the lack of research is not surprising. For online learning in general, a meta-analysis commissioned by the US Department of Education (Means et al, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practice in Online Learning 2009, p.9) found that there were only a small number of rigorous published studies, and that it was not possible to attribute any gains in learning outcomes to online or blended learning modes. As the authors of this report were aware, there are too many variables (social, cultural and economic) to compare in any direct way the efficacy of one kind of learning with another. This is as true of attempts to compare adaptive online learning with face-to-face instruction as it is with comparisons of different methodological approaches in purely face-to-face teaching. There is, however, an irony in the fact that advocates of adaptive learning (whose interest in analytics leads them to prioritise correlational relationships over causal ones) should choose to make claims about the causal relationship between learning outcomes and adaptive learning.

Perhaps, as Selwyn (Education and Technology 2011, p.87) suggests, attempts to discover the relative learning advantages of adaptive learning are simply asking the wrong question, not least as there cannot be a single straightforward answer. Perhaps a more useful critique would be to look at the contexts in which the claims for adaptive learning are made, and by whom. Selwyn also suggests that useful insights may be gained from taking a historical perspective. It is worth noting that the technicist claims for adaptive learning (that ‘it works’ or that it is ‘effective’) are essentially the same as those that have been made for other education technologies. They take a universalising position and ignore local contexts, forgetting that ‘pedagogical approach is bound up with a web of cultural assumption’ (Wiske, ‘A new culture of teaching for the 21st century’ in Gordon, D.T. (ed.) The Digital Classroom: How Technology is Changing the Way we teach and Learn 2000, p.72). Adaptive learning might just possibly be different from other technologies, but history advises us to be cautious.


[2] These figures are quoted in Learning to Adapt: A Case for Accelerating Adaptive Learning in Higher Education, a booklet produced in March 2013 by Education Growth Advisors, an education consultancy firm. Their research is available at http://edgrowthadvisors.com/research/

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]http://www.eltjam.com/adaptive-learning/ (last accessed 13 January 2014)

[3] http://www.knewton.com/ (last accessed 13 January 2014)

[4] MIT Technology Review, November 26, 2012 http://www.technologyreview.com/news/506366/questions-surround-software-that-adapts-to-students/ (last accessed 13 January 2014)

[7] Tim Gifford Taking it Personally: Adaptive Learning July 9, 2013 http://www.eltjam.com/adaptive-learning/ (last accessed January 13, 2014)

[8] David Wiley, Buying our Way into Bondage: the risks of adaptive learning services March 20,2013 http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/2754 (last accessed January 13, 2014)