Training on Red Puzzle. Educational Concept.Computer-based training (CBT) has been around in some form for roughly 50 years, and in that time it has generated a significant amount of buzz. Two of the biggest promises of CBT have been universal access to education (especially with the growth of online and mobile technologies) and adaptive learning—the ability to personalize learning experiences for individuals. Now, with massive open online courses (MOOCs) continuing to proliferate and new adaptive learning technologies popping up, it looks like 2014 might be the year these two promises are finally realized, together.

MOOCs and adaptive learning have not quite gelled yet, but there are trends that suggest they will soon. And when they do, the face of workplace and corporate training will change completely. This article briefly reviews what adaptive learning is and how it can improve organizational training and development, and then describes various advancements and technologies that suggest adaptive learning could soon be incorporated into MOOCs to produce some of the most powerful training models we have seen so far.

What is adaptive learning?

The term adaptive learning has been thrown around a lot lately. It is a buzzword that is frequently equated with “personalized learning” and “customized learning.” But what does that really mean? What makes learning adaptive?

Wikipedia defines adaptive learning as “an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students’ learning needs, as indicated by their responses to questions and tasks.” This definition is a good start, but it leaves out a lot of important details. Is there a test at the end and then the computer re-presents information the learner got wrong or is the learning calibrated throughout the module? What inputs does the computer measure—just right and wrong answers or something more sophisticated?

A much more ambitious definition is provided by the company Knewton. And they ought to know! Knewton’s relatively new adaptive learning platform is currently making major waves in education. According to Knewton,

“Adaptive learning makes content dynamic and interactive, placing the student at the center of his or her individual learning experience. The platform monitors how the student interacts with the system and learns…It assesses not only what a student knows now, but also determines what activities and interactions…delivered in what sequence and medium, most greatly increase the possibility of that student’s academic success.”

In other words, adaptive learning creates a learning environment that changes according to the needs of individual students at exactly the time when change is necessary. It relies on psychometrics and data models and algorithms to provide each student with the optimal digital learning environment. That’s quite a promise!

Why should companies care about adaptive learning?

Many of the current adaptive learning technologies, like the platform developed by Knewton, are aimed at the educational market. But adaptive learning has an equally powerful role to play in organizational training and development, for at least two reasons.

  • First, it can result in much better, and better-liked, learning than was previously possible. Companies are investing billions of dollars every year in computer-based and online training—adaptive technologies can help them ensure they are getting their money’s worth in terms of employees actually learning essential knowledge and applicable skills.
  • Second, it can greatly facilitate compliance training, which seems to get more complex every year. In an article for Corporate Compliance Insights, Jan Sramek, the CEO of enterprise learning platform company Erudify, wrote that adaptive learning can improve compliance training by allowing learners to move quickly through information they already know, which can cut training time by 50 to 80 percent.

In short, adaptive learning can improve training and development programs by helping employees learn more, faster.

What do MOOCs have to do with adaptive learning?

MOOCs themselves have yet to revolutionize education, and adaptive learning alone may or may not be revolutionary, but together these two movements represent a trend to be reckoned with. MOOCs have been criticized as a one-size-fits-all solution to a many-sided problem, but the incorporation of adaptive learning technologies brings with it the possibility of customizing training on a massive scale. With learner models generated from individual users as well as big data, adaptive learning technologies could not only automatically re-present information learners need to review, but also sense for example when they are getting bored and give them a prompt to increase engagement.

One of the biggest proponents of adaptive learning MOOCs has been Nish Sonwalkar, a physics professor at the University of Massachusetts who sees huge potential in combining these two new technologies. He recently used an adaptive learning system in his MOOC on molecular biology. You can check out the basic pedagogical and technological frameworks here; learner behavior data are yet to be released.

A few other adaptive learning experiments have also made recent headlines. Khan Academy, which is one of the largest repositories of free online learning resources, also tracks student data to provide customized learning. Last year, adaptive language-learning platform Instreamia sponsored a Spanish language MOOC. Even the federal government has joined the fray, with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommending the government support efforts to join MOOCs with adaptive learning.

When asked by The Chronicle of Higher Education if adaptive software could help personalize the MOOC experience, Michael Feldstein, who used to build personalization tools for Cengage Learning, said “absolutely.” According to the Chronicle, Feldstein believes MOOCs and adaptive software form a “natural marriage” and “could help compensate for the absence of individual hand-holding in a massive course.”

MOOCs and adaptive learning are the no longer just the next generation of digital learning environments: they’re here now. And with the current frantic pace of change in education and training, we will likely be realizing the potential of combining these two technologies in the very near future.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– offers 25+ years of training and talent management helping executives, business owners, and top performing sales executives in taking the leap from the ordinary to extraordinary. Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.

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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes. For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive. Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City. He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should 'engage and inspire' students to greater productivity and performance.

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