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What is Adaptive Learning?

  • 3 Min Read

Find out what adaptive learning is and its role in shaping teaching and learning.


Adaptive learning has become one of the most talked about technologies in education. Gartner Canada Inc. recently named adaptive learning as the number one strategic technology to impact education in 2015. With this anticipation brings different perceptions—and even some confusion—about what adaptive learning is and its role in shaping teaching and learning.

This post is the first in a series dedicated to adaptive learning. First up, let’s establish exactly what it means.

Definition of Adaptive Learning

”Adaptivity” is the “adjustment of one or more characteristics of the learning environment.” These adaptive actions take place in three different areas:

  1. Appearance/Form: How the learning actions—such as content, the addition of text, graphics, and/or video, etc.—are displayed to the learner. Most of today’s adaptive platforms call this “content consumption” and expect knowledge to be obtained by simply reading the content.
  2. Order/Sequence: How the learning actions are ordered and branched depending on the learning progress, such as pathways.
  3. Guidance towards Goal/Mastery: Actions of the system that lead a learner towards success. This allows for changes according to the most optimal learning outcomes, level of difficulty, and the learner’s increasing knowledge or skill level.

The Value is Different for Everyone

The whole idea of “personalized learning”—and by extension, adaptive learning—is to help meet the needs of each student’s learning process. However, students still rely heavily on their instructor’s feedback and guidance to confirm that they’ve met the requirements.

With growing classroom sizes, this can be difficult to scale. That’s where technology can help.

The Adaptive Learning Technology Landscape Today

In our survey of the adaptive technology landscape, we found that there are many solutions focused on adjusting learner pathways. These may be different pathways students can take within a learning environment. They are typically organized as pre-set categories and applied in a rules-based method with a decision tree. Students might take a test on the first day that will be used to create their individual path and content.

Adapting to a learner’s style and pace is another frequently applied model. While its value remains largely unproven, many adaptive platforms highlight its benefits. Most recent adaptive technology is data-driven and captures ongoing data from students’ actions. These systems use their results, creating learning actions and pathways that change and improve over time for each student.

The real opportunity can be found in taking the results of students who have completed adapted online courses and feeding those back into the system. This makes pathway learning transferable. What helped a student on the far side of the world can become valuable to a student next door.

Our View: It’s about Exploration

At its core, adaptive learning allows students to select the steps or pathways they want to pursue rather than having it dictated to them. Effective technology can assemble and adapt the whole learning management system, not just a single piece of content at a time.

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Table of Contents
  1. Definition of Adaptive Learning
  2. The Value is Different for Everyone
  3. The Adaptive Learning Technology Landscape Today
  4. Our View: It’s about Exploration