Adaptive Learning: How Online Colleges Tailor Programs to Student Needs

If you’ve ever struggled in school, you have probably heard some platitudes about how there are different types of intelligence and how school just isn’t for everyone. The fact is that until recently, most people had only one way to engage with higher education — attending lectures and labs, then taking tests and writing papers. While this approach has worked well for many students, it has not worked for all.

Enter adaptive learning.

Adaptive learning leverages software to allow university students learn in a way that makes sense for them. Adaptive learning learns about a student as they learn and then presents the best version of a course for that student, thereby adapting the process to his or her needs. For schools like Arizona State University, profiled below, adaptive learning has helped more students meet general education requirements than traditional methods could.

Adaptive platforms automatically identify students’ needs and deliver targeted content and support without explicit input from the student. An adaptive Learning Management System (LMS) includes learner analytics tools to personalize student instruction. An LMS can track individual learner behaviors—like participation, comprehension, and time on task—then compile this data for professors’ review. Instructors use this information to create learner profiles, identify potential difficulties, adjust course materials, and differentiate instruction.

Professors & Adaptive Learning

While adaptive learning technology uses artificial intelligence (AI) to learn and address student preferences and needs, professors still review student work and engage with students. Based on those interactions, professors may go into the system and adjust course delivery. Further, some professors use the technology to create a more transparent and “gamified” classroom, where students are able to see the performance of their peers (anonymized) and adjust their efforts accordingly.

Learning Success

One of the most significant benefits of adaptive learning technology is that it is easy to see when it is working. An LMS can much more easily collect and collate data on student performance and participation than a single professor at the front of a classroom. That data, coupled with course completion rates and grades, can be directly compared to traditional classroom courses for an apples-to-apples look at how the technology is performing.

The results for adaptive learning implementation have largely been encouraging, with respected universities turning to these options more and more to improve student outcomes. Following are five examples of adaptive learning technology currently in use at U.S. institutions.

Arizona State University

Arizona State University (ASU) was an early adopter of adaptive learning. Unlike other institutions that have tended to use a pilot phase to roll out the use of adaptive learning software, ASU went “all in” immediately in 2011, with a full deployment of the Knewton platform for its online and hybrid courses. In August of that year, 5000 freshmen were enrolled in remedial math using the Knewton platform and 75% of those students passed, compared to 66% the year before. Over the next two years, ASU reported an 18% increase in pass rates and a 47% drop in student withdrawals in the adaptive learning courses.

As of 2017, ASU is focused on creating a school that uses adaptive technology as an integral part of all of its learning. While adaptive learning has already improved ASU student results and retention, the new school will adopt a “flipped classroom” model where homework consists of recorded lectures, and “classroom” time is dedicated to student problem-solving with instructor support. Because adaptive technologies take over some of the more mundane instructor tasks, faculty can spend more time in small groups and individually working with students having trouble with difficult concepts. Indeed, the technology can even help instructors to identify students who could benefit from more personalized attention. The intended result is more individualized learning and better outcomes for all students, even at a huge university like ASU.

California State University, Northridge

At Cal State Northridge (CSUN), online learning is a large part of what they do. In particular, the Tseng College of Graduate, International, and Midcareer Education conducts many of its courses online. Because of the range of courses offered, CSUN has been able to develop thorough processes around adaptive learning, designed to create a robust online learning community and prepare students completing their courses to succeed in whatever endeavor they next choose.

One of the unique aspects of the CSUN online learning program is the “cohort format.” In order to develop a community around a certain program, CSUN ensures that entering students are matched with a group of students pursuing the same program. Each group has access to their own online “Hub” where they can engage in the critical social aspects of higher education. Social connections like the CSUN cohort are important in keeping students engaged in their learning experience. The Hubs also allow for faculty and the CSUN eLearning team to create strategies around these groups and tailor the learning pace and course structure for each group.

CSUN also uses online learning best practices to craft and refine its curriculum. Every faculty member developing an online course is paired with someone from the CSUN eLearning team to ensure that the course delivers the correct content while also keeping students engaged. The program at CSUN has been created with agility in mind — course material, learning technologies, and program organization are changed and updated on a constant basis to ensure results.

Colorado Technical University

In 2012, Colorado Technical University (CTU) began incorporating adaptive learning technologies into their courses, with the creation of the platform known as Intellipath. Training was offered across the school with 82% of staff members taking part. As of 2015, 15% of all CTU courses have an adaptive learning component. The use of Intellipath has allowed students to take a more active part in their own education. For instance, because the platform allows students to pace themselves, they can move faster through material they already understand, and spend more time — as well as get help using live chat features — on subjects that give them trouble. Based on year-end course evaluations, CTU has found that the use of adaptive learning technology has: made students feel more in control of their learning, helped them to better retain the information they learn, and ultimately made learning more fun and therefore more engaging.

Not only does Intellipath allow a student to direct his or her learning, it can also assess that student’s strengths and weaknesses and change how the course progresses in order to best address these personal needs.

At CTU, training has been a critical part of integrating adaptive learning technology with the traditional curriculum. Students, faculty, and administrators have been trained in the software and new students are given an Intellipath orientation that allows them immediate hands-on access to the platform. Overall, the results at CTU have been impressive, with one course increasing its pass rate by 27% when Intellipath was used.

University of Texas

In 2014, the University of Texas System announced its intention to launch a “personalized, competency-based education program system-wide aimed at learners from high school through post-graduate studies.” The program was developed at the UT Institute for Transformational Learning and was specifically designed, at least initially, to fill important Texas employment gaps in STEM professions as well as medical science.

Perhaps most notable about the UT program is that it has specifically chosen adaptive learning technology that is “mobile first.” The idea is that older online learning systems were designed to support traditional educational models rather than to change the way courses are taught and consumed altogether. The UT Total Educational Experience, or TEx, can deliver courses on mobile devices and uses adaptive technology to improve and personalize courses based on student performance. TEx also provides instantaneous academic support, including advising, coaching, and mentoring throughout each program. TEx courses are interactive and adapt quickly to a student’s learning style, offering simulations, team-based projects and clinical experiences.

Western Governor’s University

At Western Governor’s University (WGU), where all learning takes place online, adaptive learning goes hand-in-hand with the school’s competency-based education (CBE). Two of the most integral points of the WGU theory are:

  • Measure learning not time
  • No waiting to learn

What this means is that every student is given the time that they need to master a subject, rather than being bound by a certain number of hours every week or month. The second point means that once a student has mastered a certain skill, he or she can immediately move on to the next course. The combination of these two features means that students again are in complete control of their learning process and are able to move as fast (or slow) as they desire.

While the above two points are the basis of WGU’s CBE, personalized attention and adaptation are also critical. For each course, a student is provided with a faculty member who is a subject matter expert, termed a course mentor. This mentor can offer guidance and answer questions for the duration of the course, as well as guide students to the best learning methods and options for them. The mentor monitors a “learning dashboard” where he or she can determine when a specific student may be struggling, and can then offer support in a number of forms, including live events that help students learn how to approach a problem subject.

It is also important to note that WGU’s mission is particularly focused on employment. With this in mind, the adaptive learning process is applied to skills that employers want and need. Indeed, program councils, subject matter experts, the national director for the college, and curriculum designers all collaborate to ensure that the courses offered are tailored to employer needs.