Can faculty get back pedagogical power in adaptive learning?

A free learning-design tool tries to make it possible for faculty to incorporate their own course materials in an adaptive learning environment; but are faculty really on-board?

Today, data analytics and adaptive learning are helping institutions understand where students are struggling and provide additional pathways for them to succeed. As wonderful as all this sounds, these advances have come at a price: Pedagogical control has slowly shifted from faculty members to major publishers that have the deep pockets to develop these complex environments.

Now, a new learning-design tool aims to redress this imbalance by giving faculty members the ability to create a personalized learning environment using their own materials. Developed with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the free Learning Design Starter Kit is the work of Smart Sparrow, a company specializing in adaptive learning technology, and St. Petersburg College, a two-year Florida state college. The goal is to provide faculty with a step-by-step way to unpack their existing courses and reorganize them in a way that makes sense in an adaptive, online environment.

“This is what’s so neat about this program,” said Dawn Joyce, professor of communications at St. Petersburg. “We can still use our own materials, but it makes them adaptive so students don’t all have to spend time in one area of study if they don’t need to.”

A typical online course today consists of resources and tools drawn from a wide array of sources, including some adaptive components from major publishers. Joyce, for example, uses the grammar diagnostic in Pearson’s MyWriting Lab in her Composition 1 class. But she, like most other faculty, also brings her own materials to the table.

According to Amanda Newlin, learning design studio director at Smart Sparrow, PowerPoint presentations and videos are among the most common ways for faculty to present their own materials. “A typical online course nowadays looks like a hybrid, with everything compiled on the LMS,” she said. “But when faculty give students a PowerPoint presentation or have them watch a video, they don’t know how well students understand the materials unless they give them a quiz.”

(Next page: Moving beyond just adaptive learning materials)

Beyond Just Materials

The Learning Design Starter Kit allows instructors to import those same materials and then monitor how students progress through them, where they struggle, and how the materials could be better structured to improve comprehension. “There’s ownership in a lot of ways,” said Newlin. “When you think about teaching, the ideal is to have every student give you feedback every step of the way. If they misunderstand something, you can tweak it or frame your next session differently. It really gives you the power to know where those changes need to be made.”

Having the data to understand how students interact with course materials is step one—and, for some faculty, it may be all they need or want. To create a learning experience that is adaptive, though, requires faculty also to develop different pathways based on how students interact with those materials. In the context of English grammar, for example, if students immediately grasp comma splices, they would move on to the next lesson. If they stumble, on the other hand, they might be directed down a pathway that explains the concept in a different way.

This kind of adaptive approach is one of the key goals of an initiative currently underway at St. Petersburg to revitalize all of its online courses. A control experiment, staged at St. Petersburg three years ago as part of a Gates Foundation grant, demonstrated to the institution that students using adaptive learning programs have a higher success rate than those who don’t.

“We used to teach courses to the majority,” said Joyce. “Now we’re able to tailor our courses based on these adaptive programs so that we can reach every student—not just the majority.”

Newlin compares the student experience in a well-conceived adaptive course to a one-on-one dialogue with the faculty member. “If every student showed up for office hours, what would you tell them?” said Newlin. “That’s what I think we can replicate on our system, and that’s what I encourage faculty to really think about.”

Adaptive courses can also serve as gatekeepers, ensuring that students don’t progress to the next level until they have shown mastery of the previous one. “In a traditional lecture, a professor will say, ‘Does everybody understand?’ and the students will just shake their heads in the affirmative—even if they don’t,” said Joyce. “But Smart Sparrow doesn’t allow them to move on until they’ve really gotten it.”

Faculty Resistance

Despite the success shown in St. Petersburg’s control experiment, the initiative has nevertheless run into some faculty pushback. Resistance to change—particularly anything involving educational technology—comes with the territory in higher education, but adaptive learning also appears to have hit an existential nerve among some faculty members.

“The fear is that the computer is going to replace them and they’re not going to have a job,” said Joyce. “But, as faculty, we’re still very much part of the classroom. Smart Sparrow takes care of some of the mundane tasks so we can focus on students individually. It frees up time.”

Joyce has spent a lot of her own time convincing faculty of this and showing them statistics about how much students are improving. Even when faculty appreciate that no pink slips await, though, making the shift to personalized learning can be a daunting prospect.

The Learning Design Starter Kit is intended to smooth some of these fears and help faculty approach their courses in a non-linear fashion. “The technology is the easy part—it’s really about helping people get comfortable with the idea of adaptive learning,” said Newlin, who noted the importance of backwards design in developing an adaptive course. “We really break it down. How do you write a great goal? How do you identify outcomes that are measurable? How do you write a great learning objective? What are the pathways? What are the data that you want to collect?”

This kind of step-by-step approach appeals to Joyce, who noted that all online faculty at St. Petersburg will be required to use the Learning Design Starter Kit to develop their courses. As a true believer in the power of analytics, though, Joyce will ultimately be guided by the data. “We’ll be doing a controlled experiment with one group using the adaptive program and one without,” she said. “We will continue to look at the success rate.”

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