Adaptive Learning Technology

Garrett Bozylinsky, Chief Information Officer, Eastern Connecticut State University
Garrett Bozylinsky, Chief Information Officer, Eastern Connecticut State University

Garrett Bozylinsky, Chief Information Officer, Eastern Connecticut State University

When I was in grade school in the 1960s, I learned to convert fractions into decimals.  The examples in the text book were baseball batting averages.  Being an avid baseball fan, I took to the lesson like a duck to water, and began calculating batting averages for me and all my friends as we played together.  To this day, I know that 1/7 is .143, and I’ve often amazed people that I know instantly many fractions to three decimal places.  I wonder, however, for those students who did not follow baseball, if this arithmetic lesson was drudgery?  Would examples in their area of interest have produced a better understanding of the lesson?

One of my colleagues, a Southerner born and bred,once shared with me that while he was studying economics at Michigan as an undergraduate, he had a perfect score on a microeconomics exam except for one question that he left blank.    He told me his economics professor asked him, “John, why did you leave that question blank?”  John told me the question was “what is the effect on the supply of bagels if the price of lox goes down?”  John explained, “I had no idea what a lox was and how it could have anything to do with a bagel.  Now if the question had been about chitlins or boudin or ambrosia, I would have been able to answer.”  How many students don’t ‘get’ examples or cultural references in lectures or exams?

Context – so important for learning.  Many students are dutiful, and spend the time necessary to understand material regardless of whether it seems relevant to them.  Many give up, however, or, as in the second example, just don’t understand the reference.  More importantly, how much better a learning environment for all students if they can be presented with examples and context that are meaningful and interesting to them.  Learning takes place more easily and remains longer (as in the case of me learning batting averages from fractions) if the learning can be placed in a context that’s of interest and relevance to the student.

​ This flexibility and the ability of a good adaptive learning technology environment to also be always available and ever patient makes this technology a potential “game-changer” as a tool to assist faculty by enhancing the learning environment and help students be more successful

Imagine if a student could select the context for practicing their lessons in which examples and problems would be delivered.  What if a student could select environmental examples, or urban, or rural, or health-related, or education-related, or social – depending on their interest and background.  While a faculty member can provide a varietyof examples, s/he is limited by time and personal experience in what to share with students.

That’s where adaptive learning technology comes into play.  This instructional technology has the potential to become the “killer app” in the learning environment.  More importantly, this technology has the potential to engage students in ways not possible by a single faculty member or even a team of faculty. Examples and exercises in the student’s area of interest can engage the student and make the material more relevant.  For example, are some students most interested in the medical perspective of biology or the environmental, or the animal, or the behavioral?  This technology does not replace faculty, but enhances their practice set environment.  While most applicable in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, this learning technology can conceivably be used for any discipline. 

Even in the humanities, the technology could presentseveral different perspectives: historical, political, economic, philosophical, or social, as well as the various interpretations that could not all be included by the professor.

Of course, context is only one possible dimension.  Some students thrive not only with different examples and contexts, but some need more or less practice than others to master a skill or understand a concept.  The beauty of learning technology is that a student can repeat exercises until they get it.  This flexibility and the ability of a good adaptive learning technology environment to also always be available and ever patient makes this technology a potential “game-changer” as a tool to assist faculty by enhancing the learning environment and help students be more successful.

At Eastern, faculty are already experimenting with and exploring adaptive learning software that begins to address this type of instructional technology.  All of it is very much in its infancy at the moment.  The higher educationtechnology association, EduCause, has an entire initiative on Teaching and Learning with a section on adaptive teaching and learning.  EduCause reports that adaptive learning are already experimenting increasingly across disciplines. As might be expected, most textbook publishers are also experimenting with this type of learning technology.  When the technology matures enough to be generally available and powerful, it will have an enormous impact on teaching and learning.

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