Adaptive Learning is the Future of Education. Here’s Why.


It’s no secret. Kids these days are growing up in the digital age, and they’re totally engrossed in the technology around them.

They command computers like speaking a native language. Everywhere you go, they’re texting, Twittering, Snapchatting, and everything else under the sun. Their technological universe is mind-boggling.

That said, doesn’t it make sense to increase our use of technology in their education?

Enter adaptive learning. At its core, it means using computers and technology to make education more effective. And since the possibilities are so powerful, adaptive learning has the potential to change our approach to education forever.


Computers for learning, you say?

Definitely. And what’s more, it’s certainly not a new concept.

The renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner, in fact, came up with the idea of a “teaching machine” while working at Harvard.

What he developed was a sort of mechanical box that gave questions to students. When students gave the right answers, they got new material; when they gave the wrong ones, they got the same questions over again.

Said Skinner: “The student quickly learns to be right.”

bfskinner[Photo credit: User Silly rabbit of Wikipedia.]

Skinner’s box could be compared to a teacher who sticks with current material as long as necessary and only moves on when a student attains understanding. That’s a worthy ideal to strive for, but it’s difficult to achieve with large class sizes and hefty, fast-moving curricula.

Though teachers would love to give heavy individualized attention to each student, that’s often not possible for a simple reason: In any given class there’s only one teacher and many students.


[Photo credit: User Silly rabbit of Wikipedia.]

This is where computers and technology come in. With computers — paired with adaptive learning technology — teachers can essentially multiply themselves. Suddenly, it’s far easier to create individual files on the strengths and weaknesses of each student and craft individualized lesson plans that proceed at each student’s own pace.

To understand why adaptive learning technology is so good at doing that, we need to learn the core of what makes adaptive learning so special.

What is adaptive learning?

I’ve already hinted at what tools we use for adaptive learning. But let’s tackle the how of adaptive learning.

Specifically, how does adaptive learning work? And why is it effective?

A basic example: Pinpointing weaknesses

Let’s say a student, Jessica, is using an adaptive learning platform on a computer. The computer is showing her one slide after another — sometimes presenting new material, sometimes quizzing her to get a sense if she’s understanding what she’s being taught.


At the moment, she is practicing:

  • Skip-counting by 5s (5, 10, 15, etc.),
  • Estimating lengths using different units of measurement (inches, feet, centimeters, and meters), and
  • Solving word problems involving money

At certain intervals (or perhaps on every slide), the adaptive learning platform will give her quiz questions on those topics to gauge her understanding.

Let’s say Jessica is accurately answering almost all of the questions on skip-counting and estimating lengths. The adaptive learning program will take this to mean that she has a strong grasp of that material.

But let’s also say that Jessica is answering the money word problems mostly incorrectly. The adaptive learning program would, of course, discern that Jessica is struggling with this concept.


Perhaps if this was a traditional test, Jessica would finish the test, receive her score, see that she got the word problems wrong… and probably get very little more practice on those word problems. Because she would get little more practice, she might proceed through school with a significant gap in her skills.

Instead, the adaptive learning program will identify that she’s weak with money word problems. After that, the program will offer supplementary material to shore up her understanding of the concept. Maybe it will present new learning material, or show her the concept from a different angle.

Her answers to successive quiz questions will give the program an ever-clearer picture of her grasp of the concept. It will evolve with her, and her inputs will determine what the program shows her next.


Eventually, when the program sees that Jessica is knocking down those money word problems left and right, it’ll be clear that she has become proficient with the concept. Instead of Jessica proceeding without fully grasping the material, she has excelled at what she once struggled with. The difference was a laser-focused, targeted plan of learning that got her up to par.

That’s the power of adaptive learning.

What are some benefits of adaptive learning?

As we saw, adaptive learning is an effective, targeted teaching tool. Not only that, but it also has the potential to be an educational game-changer. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Kids love using technology

A 2013 study by Common Sense Media stated that 72 percent of kids 8 and under have used smartphones or tablets.

Said James Steyer, Common Sense Media CEO: “These kids are true digital natives.”

Of course, you wouldn’t need statistics to tell you that. If you’ve ever seen your kids texting their friends incessantly, taking endless rounds of selfies, or teaching you how to use a computer, you’ve already grasped the idea.


The implication is clear: kids like using technology. They’re used to it. And because they’re fluent in technology, they’ll be naturals when it comes to combining it with their education. Perhaps it could be billed the “best of both worlds.”

Take it straight from the kids themselves. Heather Wolpert-Gawrom, for Edutopia, gleaned these responses from her own eighth graders:

  • “I believe that when students participate in ‘learning by doing’ it helps them focus more. Technology helps them to do that. Students will always be extremely excited when using technology.”
  • “We have entered a digital age of video, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and they [have] become more of a daily thing for teens and students. When we use tech, it engages me more and lets me understand the concept more clearly.”

Check out this TED Talk by elementary school student Cordell Steiner, in which he explains how his technology-infused classroom is both incredibly engaging and educational. Specifically he’s talking about how computer games allow for personalized learning, learning through failure, and, most importantly… fun.

Technology has been a powerful trend for quite a while, and it’ll continue to be a powerful trend. What’s more, kids respond to it. The future of learning could be education infused with technology, not only because it’s effective, but also for the simple reason that students love it.

2. Easier for teachers to personalize learning

Sara Mead in the U.S. News & World Report’s Knowledge Bank blog writes:

“Paying attention to individual children’s strengths, needs and interests and developing learning experiences that respond to them are core tenets of developmentally appropriate early childhood practice.”

In other words, personalized, adaptive instruction that grows and changes with the student is a strong way of teaching very young children.

She says, however, that this sort of personalized instruction often diminishes once children start elementary school.

Luckily, computers and adaptive learning programs can aid teachers in creating personalization for their students.

Mead, in fact, notes that

“Computers in personalized learning classrooms often play a role very similar to that of centers in early childhood classrooms: providing opportunities for students to explore their interests, while allowing teachers time to provide customized small group and one-on-one learning experiences.”

Computers, then, provide multiple benefits in students’ education. Among them are the fact that teachers can add material themselves to adaptive learning platforms, creating computer-presented material for individual students.

But equally as importantly, computers can free up a teacher’s time to give more personalized attention to students. If, for example, half of the class is using computers at the moment, a teacher could more easily spend one-on-one time with the other half.


She could divide the class into a portion that would greatly benefit from computer learning, and another portion that would benefit from intimate interaction with herself or small groups.

With the introduction of technology into education, there are always fears that computers will eventually replace teachers. But the real strength of computers is complementing the instruction of a skilled teacher. Teachers offer the personalized touch necessary for education, and computers streamline many things to make teaching easier.

3. Get struggling students up to speed

Let’s start with this question: Why is it so important that children in early elementary school learn how to read?

Here’s an important reason, from Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College:

“Third grade is a kind of pivot point. We teach reading for the first three grades and then after that children are not so much learning to read but using their reading skills to learn other topics. In that sense if you haven’t succeeded by third grade, it’s more difficult to [remediate] than it would have been if you started before then.”

Basically, learning to read is the foundation upon which students build their future learning. It’s difficult to read a science book, for example, if you’re still struggling to comprehend sentences.

The dangers of getting behind are real: If a student isn’t reading proficiently in third grade, for example, there is a 1 in 6 chance that he will not graduate from high school by age 19.

Furthermore, a 2012 ACT study showed that students who are struggling heavily in 4th and 8th grade “have less than a 1 in 3 chance of being ready for college or a career by the end of high school.”

The evidence is clear: When a student falls behind, she is likely to fall even further behind. That said, it’s paramount that struggling students are given the resources and support to catch up.

Within a whole class setting, it’s often difficult to devote the personalized attention necessary to get a struggling student up to speed. It’s understandable when teachers feel the need to continue with lesson plans in order to cover planned curriculum for the year.


But devoting personalized attention is precisely what adaptive learning is meant to do, and adaptive learning programs do it very well. That’s exactly the point of adaptive learning: to pinpoint weaknesses and subsequently present material specifically designed to get students to proficiency.

ALEKS (which stands for Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces) is one such adaptive learning program that hones in on weaknesses in students’ understanding. According to McGraw-Hill, it’s helped its students — many of whom come from remedial backgrounds — achieve pass rates nearing 90 percent.

4. Parents can more easily track students’ progress

A Public Agenda survey of public school students found that:

  • 65 percent of parents said they wanted to do more in terms of being involved in their child’s education.
  • 50 percent said “other parents they know are involved too little.”

What better way to get more involved in your kids’ education than to have concrete information about how they’re doing in school?

A key to adaptive learning is pinpointing precisely which concepts a student is struggling with. If, for example, a student is answering angular-momentum physics questions incorrectly, an adaptive learning program will offer more guidance and practice problems on the topic. That’s because a student’s input into the program will make it clear where she is excelling — as well as where she is struggling.

All of those inputs can be translated into hard data to create a comprehensive picture of a student’s strengths and weaknesses. And that information can be relayed to parents.

If you’re a parent, you want to be kept updated about your child’s progress, including knowing precisely where to help him at home. It’s a worthy ideal to pursue, and it can be more easily attained through adaptive learning.

5. Keep advanced students challenged

In an article about grouping students by ability in the classroom, the New York Times notes one viewpoint that when teachers have to “teach to the middle,” both struggling and advanced students are left out.

We’ve already touched on how adaptive learning technology can greatly help students who have trouble understanding classroom material. But there’s another angle to adaptive learning, which is keeping advanced students challenged every step of the way.


Not only is adaptive learning technology designed to identify when a student is weak in a topic, but it’s also designed to identify when a student is breezing through the material. When a student is able to answer diagnostic questions correctly a very large percent of the time, the adaptive technology will present new material so that a student isn’t held back by the scheduled pace of her class curriculum.

The possibilities can be astounding: It might not be uncommon to see gifted students tackling material much more advanced than their current grades. If a student is above-par in ninth grade, for example, he could be starting 10th-grade physics, Algebra II, and biology instead of remaining unchallenged with material in which he’s already proficient.

6. Flexibility for teachers to add new material

Just as adaptive technology changes with students, the technology itself can also be molded to fit teachers’ lesson plans and educational goals for students.

Many adaptive learning platforms are beginning to offer tools for teachers to create their own content quickly and easily.

Fishtree, for example, allows teachers to draw from various resources to create their own lessons. Smart Sparrow, similarly, offers drag-and-drop tools to create adaptive lesson plans.

A video on SmartSparrow’s approach to adaptive learning.

And we at KnowBright are creating our own content authoring tools, with an adaptive learning system that ties them all together. These are all coming soon!

Strategies to use with adaptive learning

Adaptive learning technology is a great teaching tool, but it’s most effective when it works in tandem with the personalized touch of a teacher.

Basically, think of it as a helper to a good teacher.

Here’s one possibility for the use of adaptive learning technology, as we briefly touched on earlier: Use it to effectively cut your class size in half. You can send half of your class to work diligently on adaptive education while working one-on-one or in small groups with the other half:

  • Have advanced learners proceed further with their adaptive studies. Meanwhile, you devote time meeting with students who need a little more help understanding the material. With diagnostic quizzes from the adaptive learning technology, you will already have a great picture of what your students are struggling with.


You can also use adaptive programs to prepare students at home for in-class instruction and activities:

  • Let your students use adaptive technology at home to absorb rote-learning subjects, and then use class time to clear up confusion with concepts or organize peer activities. For example, students can complete a module at home that teaches how to add and subtract fractions. In class, students can ask questions about what they had trouble with.

These are just a few possibilities for adaptive programs. Not only is adaptive technology itself oftentimes customizable, but it also allows teachers to customize their classroom and the way they teach.

Adaptive learning is the future of education

In a nutshell, adaptive learning offers the possibility of bringing our educational system to heights we haven’t seen before.

There are some big players backing adaptive learning, as well. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, created the Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program, through which it offered $1 million in grants to create adaptive learning courses. With increased funding and awareness of the new technology, adaptive learning will only get better in the coming years.

billmelinda[Photo credit: Kjetil Ree of Wikipedia.]

Adaptive learning is the future because it brings previously unheard-of educational strategies to the table. With the advent of computers in learning, we’re able to do things that couldn’t be done as effectively with offline tools.

Here are a few things we’ve seen can come about from adaptive learning:

  • We bring the world of technology — which kids are already fluent in — to students’ education. Instead of shying away from computer-aided instruction, we embrace it as a valuable tool to help us teach. Along the way, we tweak our adaptive learning programs to make instruction ever more engaging, interesting, and educational.
  • Teachers are given powerful tools to personalize learning for their students. This includes an increased ability to get in the heads of their students and discover their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and motivations. Adaptive learning programs themselves are adept at individualizing learning for students, but they also create more opportunities for teachers to spend hands-on time with the students who need it.


  • Perhaps one of the most exciting possibilities is that adaptive learning can greatly improve the results of struggling students. This is because adaptive learning technology is very well designed to help these students. It expertly pinpoints weaknesses in understanding while offering material that is specifically designed to clear up confusion and bring clarity to certain concepts. And, importantly, it moves at the student’s pace — so that the student isn’t left behind when a class moves on to different topics.
  • Because adaptive learning programs can build comprehensive data profiles on students, parents can keep track of their kids’ progress in school. There is specific information that points to students’ strengths and weaknesses, and all of this can be relayed easily to parents.


  • Gifted students can accelerate their learning instead of remaining unchallenged by grade-assigned material. Because of this, coupled with the ability of adaptive technology to greatly aid struggling students, teachers can avoid having to “teach to the middle.”
  • Teachers are given the flexibility to add their own content, which is especially valuable because they are the ones with daily, hands-on experience with their students. They can combine this expertise with the structural advantages of adaptive learning technology to create dynamic, impactful lesson plans for their kids.

With adaptive learning, there can be many exciting improvements to our educational system in coming times.

Odds are that the kids will love it because of its use of computers and technology. But we might love it more because of its potential to enrich instruction in ways we haven’t seen before. If we choose to pursue this future, our children could reap countless benefits now and in many years to come.

B.F. Skinner, teaching machine, and Bill and Melinda Gates photos used under Creative Commons license.

All other photos credit: Shutterstock

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