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“The pace of change right now is the absolute slowest it will be for the rest of your life. Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a fascinating ride.” 

This is how Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, commented on the recent technological boom. The tech disruption in education has brought advancements such as blended courses, the online whiteboard, and adaptive e-learning designs. Instead of being passive, today’s students are used to interaction and having control over all areas of study. Clearly, the one-size-fits-all approach is no longer optimal. Adaptive learning designs are here to help.

First things first: what is an adaptive learning design?

The adaptive learning concept dates back to 1963 when John Carroll at Princeton University pointed out that people have different abilities, opportunities, and reasons to process information. So, if learning outcomes are constant, what can be changed is the time and quality of instruction. 

Thanks to technology there has been a recent resurgence of this concept. Adaptive learning design is a term coined in 2005 by scholars at The Open University. It involves personalizing behavior to give each student an adequate learning flow for their individual styles. The authors of this definition use the Lego metaphor in which a teacher has a set of blocks to build a virtual learning environment: activities, rules, roles, methods, plays, etc.  Elements are adaptively assembled to meet students’ emerging needs, instead of simply relying on pre-emptive designs. 

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Five benefits of adaptive learning designs

Knowledge

When instructors address individual needs, students are more likely to succeed. Data confirms that adaptation in learning can significantly increase knowledge, especially when it comes to complex subjects. The Colorado Technical University boosted pass rates for trigonometry from 76% to 92% by incorporating its principles in traditional tutoring. 

Motivation

An adaptive design demonstrates care and readiness for support. Thus, motivational deficits that sometimes occur in web conferencing environments are addressed.

Engagement

“Adaptive learning can help students think about meaning,” expert Christina Yu observes. The point is that an adaptive design creates a link between details and the bigger picture. By thinking about meaning, students are forced to reflect on their work, on the work of their peers, and on their tutor’s work. The content is no longer dead and static, but alive and immersive. 

Course satisfaction

More than 70% of learners report that they find adaptive course designs helpful, signaling excellent satisfaction levels. Eventually, dropout rates will be reduced and pupils will meet educational goals faster. 

Such findings are encouraging, but the question remains:

What is to be adapted?

Let’s be clear - answering questions in class is not an adaptive learning design. However, changing a task in response to a question is. There are five adaptive learning designs that are repeatedly described in the literature:

Content-driven design

Material that is too hard decreases motivation, yet if it is too easy, learners are bored. Academics compared effortful and effortless thinking and found that the former significantly improves intrinsic motivation, engagement levels, self-directed learning, and well-being. The sweet spot is using content that is just above one’s ability level. This requires a student to put in some effort, but not so much as to get discouraged.

An advanced learning management system (LMS) like Canvas makes it possible to place pupils on individual pathways to provide the content they need. Canvas MasteryPaths makes it possible for educators to assign adapted tasks, often with a choice over activities. It is not necessary for pupils to know that they are working on assignments that are slightly different from what their peers are working on. But they will all achieve the same learning outcomes and will have the same sense of accomplishment and success.

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Content adaptation during live sessions may sound like a challenge, but not when an LMS has a powerful integrated web conferencing environment. VEDAMO Virtual Classroom is a case in point, as it is equipped with a handy tool for quick integration with the Canvas LMS and an online whiteboard, which facilitates seamless content adaptation on the go. Images and text can be added, resized, or deleted in a jiffy. 

The following principles are particularly relevant to live design adaptations: 

  • The multimedia rule: Learning is improved by almost 90% when a relevant graphic is added to text.
  • The redundancy effect: There is no need to unnecessarily repeat a message in different modes, e.g., a picture with large chunks of text that you read from the screen.
  • The split-attention effect: We comprehend less effectively if text and pictures are separated in space and time.
  • The symbol-system principle: Aligning form to the nature of the message can reduce elaboration and the difficulty of comprehension.

Learner-centered design

Teach-to-the-middle instruction may traditionally be the most popular, but it is no longer relevant in virtual courses. Participants come to the online classroom with fundamentally diverse backgrounds. With this design, adaptive pretesting is used to determine knowledge levels, personal aims, and learner styles. Once the course is up and running, instructional scaffolding often takes place, as does working closely with a student to carry out a task or solve a problem.

Support can take many forms in a potent LMS such as Canvas. For instance, instructors can prepare tailored resources and guides and students can use Canvas 24/7, as well as take advantage of all the materials provided to go deeper into the subject. Moreover, the integration with a virtual classroom like VEDAMO makes it easy to leverage learner-centered principles during web conferencing sessions. Teachers can also contact their students in real time to monitor performance and provide targeted feedback when needed. 

Evaluation-driven design 

Think of Duolingo, the language learning platform with more than 300 million users in 2020. What makes it so successful and addictive is the daily gratification of small achievements. Likewise, an assessment-driven design will cut material into bits and map them into a hierarchy. Learners need to master basic skills before moving on to more advanced topics in the hierarchical structure. The key is to regularly check performance in order to decide on acceleration or remediation. The Canvas LMS is equipped with a tool from the future – MagicMarker – which makes assessments quick and easy. The powerful grading wizard records, calculates, tabulates, and reports mastery on the fly. A snapshot of comprehension and performance in class facilitates smarter decision-making. 

Time-driven design 

 Very often people with the same abilities or motivation levels require different amounts of time to achieve the same objectives. The traditional educational system normally sets fixed timelines, but web conferencing environments can be very flexible. In her work with temporal culture, the sociologist Barbara Adam shows how changes in five time variables can improve the learning experience. 

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A smart LMS makes all of these variables fluid. Students are free to select when to make use of  the available resources, and tutors can adapt the sequences and tempo. Even if web conferencing sessions are fixed at hours that are convenient for all, there is still a lot of room for flexibility. VEDAMO Virtual Classroom is equipped with tools to make time adaptations. For example, a “raise hand” button to take a break with a question, and breakout rooms to allow some time for discussion.

Gamification 

An integral part of the designs already explained is making learning more like a game. Goals, levels, points, and fun are the arsenal of gamification, or taking techniques from games and using them in non-games. Scholars at the University of Washington found that most students (76%) prefer a gamified course. Participants describe gamification as enjoyable (almost 70%) and motivating (50%), and felt that they learned more (60%). The virtual classroom features tools like the online whiteboard that enable shared gaming activities. Leaderboards, quizzes, puzzles, and working against the clock come in handy to bring the heat and fight fatigue.

It sounds useful, yet meeting individual needs in a group is very challenging. Technology makes all of this much easier. It takes what the instructor does and automates it on a larger scale to promote efficiency.

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The future of adaptive learning  

Adaptive learning design is an emerging area, but it is here to stay. This article can be helpful to those who are considering simple designs that are available for everyone using Canvas. Set up your web conferencing sessions with VEDAMO Virtual Classroom and enjoy the synergy of choice and live customization.

At its core, the idea is to set learners free to select an educational experience, instead of having it be dictated to them. Recently, adaptive learning systems have been gaining momentum in the automation of the designs discussed so far. They allow for sequencing, real-time data collection, and quick assessments at a large scale. Rest assured, technological advancements can support the talents of great teachers, but they cannot replace them.