Adaptability – Learning as we Teach

Adaptive learning is a fascinating concept. In theory, the environment in which we function learns from our activity (strengths/weaknesses, test results, interactions). After the environment “knows us” as learners, it adapts to respond to our actions. Instead of one-way, same content for all, the system provides personalized content reflective of our true learning needs. It’s a great concept…and one that I imagine we will see soon. Currently, it’s prohibitive. Few organizations (and likely not public education) can afford an implementation of this level. The task of creating an intelligent agent capable of reacting to learner competence and providing personalized content/instruction/interaction, is simply too expensive for anyone but select research institutions and corporations.

It appears that we will have to wait before technology provides the adaptable learning experience we crave as educators. Adaptability is something that we as educators can readily provide to our learners through simple, social tools currently available. It’s unfortunate that our current approach to curriculum design (in both K-12 and higher education sectors) is structured to eliminate personalization. Obviously a teacher in the classroom has the ability to take existing content (i.e. text book or curriculum) and present it in light of current events or recent developments. But this isn’t the same as personalizing to each learner. It’s simply updating the curriculum. Personalization requires adapting curriculum to each individual learner…adaptability is a dance between learner, educator, and content. Adaptation/personalization is time-intensive – a teacher in K-12 with 25-30 learners will be unable to provide the level of attention required by each learner. Curriculum and time are antagonists to my own idealism of education and learning.

If technology is not able to provide affordable adaptability, and educators are constrained by design and time, what is the option? I see a very simple solution – social technologies like blogs, wikis, and RSS. Hold the skepticism for a bit. I’m an idealist…but not utopian. I don’t think blogs will fix all that ails education today. Blogs, like wikis, have many limitations (but that’s another post). They do, however, enable a personal experience for learners. They do allow educators to adapt to a greater degree than most classroom environments. Consider a class with 30 learners – all bloggging. An RSS feed aggregates their combined voices. As the teacher, I am able to see how they are/aren’t “getting the content”. Their knowledge needs will most certainly not be fully met by the work of the instructional designer. As I hear the aggregate voices of learners, I will recognize large-scale knowledge gaps…and be able to fill them by providing supplementary resources. Instead of a canned course on Macbeth, I’m able to provide a course that adapts to learners needs based on how I see them interacting and learning.

Additional value is provided in the ability for learners to teach each other. Reading the opinions of 30 classmates is a far richer learning ecology than hearing the opinion of one teacher. The learner is the teacher is the learner.

This is obviously a very simple way to add some adaptability into a course, but at least it’s a start. We need to start having this important discussion. We have many resources available that can create a richer learning experience. We don’t need to rely on learning management systems as our primary learning tool. We can start the learning experience by focusing on connections first and content second. Our most limiting challenge is our existing views of learning. I think I’m going to make a New Year’s resolution to spend 2006 being discontent with existing approaches to learning…and to stop accepting notions of learning that have little to do with the instructors and even less to do with learners. We can do better. We have the tools for change. Do we have the vision?

I would love to hear your thoughts on how you are creating a more personalized learning environment…and how you’re creating adaptive learning.

3 Responses to “Adaptability – Learning as we Teach”

  1. Randy Nolan says:

    A couple comments:
    First, I know a Grade 5 teacher who is adapting like crazy–she has 20 students, and almost half have special needs of one kind or another. It’s not just adapting curriculum, either; she’s heroically working at helping every student learn, but it’s a HUGE task.
    The other comment is a “Yeah, but . . .” I tried to do a blended f2f/online (wiki) class last year & promised to break my butt to allow students freedom to design their own educational experience. All I got was the blank stare that said, “Just give me the goods & then assign me a grade.” It’s a very daunting task to help students appreciate that permission to shape their education is a gift when (it seems) they not only see it as a chore but think that’s what the teacher gets paid for.

  2. Wayne Batchelder says:

    My experience is that adaptivity/personalization is one of the main issues of the transformation of learning to a learning centered focus along with connectivity. I would add learning objects to the mix with social software tools, but the essence of blogging and of RSS feeds offer a lot towards a more personal experience in the classroom.
    I have been working on these issues in my classrooms and also a dissertation proposal concerning personalization and learning objects. It is good to hear your challenge and obvious concern for doing what the adaptive technologies are attempting with a human core of design and hard work. I don’t find a lot of people working on these issues, or at least not discussing it.

  3. I work in higher education in the UK and have had similar difficulties to Randy with getting students to contribute to the design of their own curriculum. However I am going to keep trying because I think it is the way forward in education. I have had some success in getting students to use blogs and I think I have learnt a great deal from my mistakes. Next semester I will try a different design, along the lines of the one suggested using RSS feeds, which I think has a better chance of working.