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Adaptive Learning, An Idea With Powerful Potential

by Kelly Walsh on May 25, 2011


Are adaptive learning based “teaching machines” a perfect partnering of technology and education?

The idea of tutorial computer applications that adapt to a student’s learning curve strikes me as an idea with a lot of potential. It’s no coincidence that the ability to enable students to learn and proceed at their own pace is also a key benefit of the work of the Khan Academy which we examined briefly in Sunday’s post – there’s a theme developing here! The creation and delivery of self-paced learning tools is clearly a huge area of potential for education technology, and adaptive learning functionality can multiply the effectiveness of these types of applications.

According to this recent article from The Chronicle, B.F. Skinner created the original adaptive learning teaching machine back in the 50’s while working at Harvard. Wikipedia’s definition of Adaptive Learning explains that in this model, “computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students’ weaknesses, as indicated by their responses to questions. Adaptive learning systems endeavor to transform the learner from passive receptor of information to collaborator in the educational process”.

“No two students are alike, but most are taught the same material in the same way. That’s about to change.”
– Application software company Knewton, Inc

Knewton is a player in the Adaptive Learning sphere, and they claim to be developing the industry’s “most powerful adaptive learning engine” with “continuous adaptivity— the ability to customize educational content to meet the needs of each student on a daily basis”. While traditional classrooms and textbooks can provide the same material to every student, Knewton is intended to dynamically match lessons, videos, and practice problems to each student’s ideal learning arc.

The Adaptive eLearning Research Group at the The University of New South Wales at Sydney, Australia also builds “technology for creating educational content that understands what students know and what they don’t and then intelligently adapt to them.” Learn more about this here. But first, check out their video:


So what do you think about Adaptive Learning applications? Anyone have any experience with tools like these, or know of any other exciting developments under way in this field? Click here and to share your insights!

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
TakingITGlobal – Social Learning With A Global Consciousness
Inspiring Learning Outcomes with Twitter in the Kindergarten Classroom
Facebook in the Classroom. Seriously.


Kelly Walsh is Chief Information Officer at The College of Westchester, in White Plains, NY, where he also teaches. In 2009, Walsh founded He frequently delivers presentations and training on a variety of related topics at schools and conferences across the U.S. His eBook, the Flipped Classroom Workshop-in-a-Book is available here. Walsh became the Community Administrator for the Flipped Learning Network in June of 2016. In his "spare time" he also writes, records, and performs original music ... stop by and have a listen!

[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own, or those of other writers, and not those of my employer. - K. Walsh]

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Vik Hovsepian August 30, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Wondering, what role does ALEKS play in the Adaptive Learning world?

Professor of Mathematics
Wittier, CA

Gerald September 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm

There are different perspectives on this. The author of this article, Dr. P. McRae, has deep concerns about the data collected, who owns it, and how it may be used in the future. As always one needs to balance the perspectives.

Kumar M R July 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Good adaptive learning platform

Snapwiz creates a personalized course plan using your preferences, objectives and individual subject skill level. Our personalization engine continuously monitors your progress and adapts to your current skill profile by constantly re-calibrating your study plan. As a student, you will only receive relevant course activities in the form of concept lessons, practice sets, and quizzes based on your current difficulty level and available time. Weekly revision tests help ensure the permanent commitment of recently learned skills and techniques to memory for test day.

rateske May 28, 2011 at 9:33 am

Yes, that is the math site you have there and not only do they have spelling, but also vocabulary. I learned about it from the first school I worked in and 13 years later that school is still using the program everyday in the computer lab. They use the cd’s though instead of online.

K. Walsh May 28, 2011 at 6:28 am

Thanks “rateske” for this informed comment. I assume this is the product you are referencing: I notice they also have an “aaa spelling” application available now as well. I am sure some readers will find this worth learning more about!

K. Walsh May 28, 2011 at 5:55 am

Great point John. Moving forward, I think the “gamification” of online learning tools is going to play a growing role in these types of applications.

rateske May 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm

I think adaptive learning applications are fantastic to use in the classroom. I have been using an online software for 13 years that is somewhat adaptive. As you mentioned above, “computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students’ weaknesses, as indicated by their responses to questions” is what the AAA Math program does, to a point. I think the software in the video is more advanced, but I’ve seen great success using AAA Math with my students and the practices repeats problems that the students are struggling with (weaknesses) and the problems they are getting easily eventually get replaced with new problems. I also like that I can choose the area that a child needs specific help in. The only disadvantage is that it only goes to grade 8.

TestSoup May 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm

I think the original “adaptive software” are videogames.

Growing up, I can’t tell you how much I learned from playing games. How to think creatively, how to solve problems in unconventional ways, how to read quickly — and so much more.

With new advances in technology we only have more opportunities to create interactive environments in which students can learn without even realizing that they are being taught.

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