November 04, 2014

One Size Doesn’t Fit All – A Case for Adaptive Learning


With origins in the machine age and a feel most suited to the 19th century factory model, linear instruction is outdated and no longer meets the needs of today’s educational systems. Learning is not one size fits all, and instruction should not be either. What schools need today is a dynamic, non-linear approach to learning – one that is data-driven and tailored to the unique needs of each individual student.

While personalized learning on a superficial level has been taking place in classrooms for decades, today’s technology now makes it possible for educators to personalize at scale. Adaptive learning does just that, offering different content to learners based on interactive assessment of where they are in their understanding of the content. Some programs adapt based on assessment at the end of a unit, whereas others monitor student responses as they move through the subject material.

Adaptive learning has been attracting growing attention in recent months for a number of reasons, including a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiative, new partnerships, and a rising number of vendors. In this post, I’ll take a look at the benefits of adaptive learning and several of the technologies available.

First, let’s drill into some of the benefits of adaptive learning from both a student and instructor perspective.

  • Engages students – In today’s digital age, technology has become commonplace in the lives of students. As a result, students are increasingly engaged when afforded the opportunity to spend part of their class time interacting with the subject content via adaptive learning programs on the computer.
  • Allows students to progress at different speeds – It’s no mystery that students learn at very different and variable paces. The real-time visibility provided by adaptive learning enables students to progress at their own rate, and ultimately achieve subject mastery, the best possible academic outcome.
  • Adapts to different abilities – Not all students shine in the same subject areas. Someone who is very strong at math may struggle with English. Adaptive learning technology recognizes this and can immediately alter instruction accordingly based on what the student is mastering or struggling with. It provides supplemental teaching content only when needed.
  • Individualized attention – With today’s wide-ranging class sizes, adaptive learning technology enables teachers to address students’ needs in a one-on-one or small group setting while other students are using the computer-based instruction. Even with large class sizes, where it can be challenging to address the needs of each student, the technology enables teachers to provide personalized attention.


So what does adaptive learning technology look like? In the table below, I’ve highlighted eight different technologies that meet different institutional needs.




 Adapt Courseware  Measures students’ mastery  progress relative to a defined set  of learning objectives
  • Adaptive Stack – ordered stack of learning interactivities that optimizes the challenge level for each student
  • Mastery Meter – demonstrates the degree to which students achieve higher performance levels
  • Performance Dashboards – enable instructors to view performance at class or individual level
 Cerego  Memory management platform  that creates a more efficient  learning process
  • Tracks individuals’ memory strengths on an item-by-item basis
  • Creates personalized learning pathways based on individual profiles, memory maps and time to demonstrate mastery
  • Allows for third party and user generated content
 CogBooks  Creates a default path for student  learning. Struggling students  receive an optimized path
  • Enables dynamic adjustment of learning sequence and experience for individual students
  • Open platform
  • Allows instructors to create and edit content, and view reports to identify potential issues
 Jones & Bartlett  Learning  Creates a completely personal  learning pathway through several  domain sets
  • Domains include: Hierarchical Domain, Learning Profile Domain, Data Domain, Goal Domain and Adaptation Domain
  • Instructors have access to a host of reporting functions and dashboards
 LearnSmart by  McGraw-Hill  Interactive study tool that  adaptively assesses student skills  and knowledge level
  • Accounts for memory degradation
  • Instructor reports available to faculty using McGraw-Hill Connect
 Knewton  Infrastructure platform allows  others to build proficiency-based  adaptive learning applications
  • Partners create adaptive experiences for any type of content and subject matter
  • Analyzes which lessons resonate best, for whom, and why
 Open Learning  Initiative  Provides questions of learner  focus as well as targeted feedback  and rich hints
  • Not a fully developed cognitive tutor; rather, it complements faculty expertise
  • Embeds assessment within course activities
  • Provides instructor-focused learning dashboard with access to a gradebook
 Smart Sparrow  Delivers tools and technologies  that allow professors and  instructors to integrate adaptive  elements into their courses
  • Authoring tool – allows instructors to create their own adaptive content
  • Professional services – assist institutions in developing adaptive programs, content and curriculum


One size does not fit all in education – there is a need for variety and personalization. While educators have been working to achieve this for years, it is clear that adaptive learning technology is now helping them do so.

About The Contributor:
Bob NilssonDirector of Vertical Solutions Marketing

Bob Nilsson is the director of vertical solutions marketing at Extreme Networks. In this role, Mr. Nilsson leads the Extreme Networks strategy and programs for vertical markets including Healthcare, Higher Education, K-12 Education, Federal Government, and Hospitality. He has over 30 years of experience in marketing IT systems to Global 1000 companies worldwide. Before joining Extreme Networks Bob was VP Marketing at Clear Methods. Prior to that Bob held senior marketing positions at Digital Equipment and HP. Bob holds an SB degree in EE from MIT and MBA from Columbia Business School.

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