"The vast majority of colleges are still offering an education designed a long time ago to meet the challenges of the last century. The challenges of this century are different, but most colleges are finding it difficult to respond."
"Many of them are still telling students what they have available, and students have the choice of taking it or leaving it."
"But this university is a pioneer. It doesn’t decide for you what you’re going to get; it asks you what you need. Based on your answers, you and your university are re-designing higher education together."
A New Kind of Excellent Education
"You are keeping the best parts of the old model and experimenting with promising new approaches and technologies. You are finding creative ways to meet the challenges of this century—the challenges that you face in your day-to-day lives."
"You are the ones who said, Wait! I have eyes. I see a way to connect my education to my career path. I can be interested in earning money and in indulging my curiosity, in enriching my knowledge, in learning more about the world around me."
"You are the ones who said, Wait! Why do I have to sit in a specific room in a specific building for a specific amount of time? I have the guts to use new tools to learn in more convenient and dynamic ways—and, by the way, I’ll finish when I’m actually finished, not when the clock runs out."
"You are the ones who said, Wait! I don’t have to go into debt for the rest of my life to get an excellent education. I can afford to take care of my responsibilities now and train my mind for the future."
'A School is Where People Learn'
"I called you pioneers, because what you are doing is daring and new. But it’s more than that. You are not off on an island being different by yourselves. The world is paying attention, and starting to follow your example."
"So you are pioneers—and you are leaders, too. You are leading us to a new future in which a high-quality education is affordable, convenient, and relevant. And in which it is more personal, too ... not every student learns in the same way, and we need to bring learning to people, not people to learning."
"A school, a university, is not a building, it is a place where people learn."
Through the Open Ideas at Pearson series, Pearson has been collaborating with some of the best minds in education to showcase forward-looking, independent insights on the big, unanswered questions in education. The latest report, "Decoding Adaptive," published in collaboration with the team at EdSurge, is the culmination of six months of research, interviews, and analysis on the current state of digital adaptive learning tools. This story is a summary of that report.
A Helpful Starting Point: What Is An Adaptive Learning Tool?
Not all learning technology is adaptive.
The "Decoding Adaptive" report offers a simple definition of 'adaptive learning' technology because the phrase means different things to different practitioners:
"We define adaptive learning tools as education technologies that can respond to a student's interactions in real-time by automatically providing the student with individual support. ... Adaptive learning tools collect specific information about individual students' behaviors by tracking how they answer questions. The tool then responds to each student by changing the learning experience to better suit that person's needs, based on their unique and specific behaviors and answers."
"Teachers are increasingly attempting to reach all of their students, each of whom have distinct learning needs, with the right learning experience at the right time," writes education innovator Michael B. Horn in the report's foreword. "Having effective software turbocharges those efforts and can provide a realistic pathway to accomplish that goal."
"The tools, however, are not a panacea," he writes. "It's unlikely that a single tool will ever be able to take over a student's education ... helping students own their learning, make decisions, become lifelong learners, and develop their metacognitive skills."
Catching Up and 'Unshackled'
The report profiles two schools using adaptive learning technology.
Students there spend up to a quarter of their day (50 to 80 minutes in total) using online tools. In one second-grade classroom, a teacher spends 15 to 30 minutes with each of his students every Friday to talk through their progress and problems uncovered through their adaptive learning work.
At the second school, Joseph Weller Elementary School in Milpitas, California, 40-percent of the students are English language learners. A large portion of them perform at proficient or better levels, according to California standards.
"For us, the decision to use adaptive technology was about helping underachievers catch up," district superintendent Cary Matsuoka told the report's researchers. "And it was about helping kids take responsibility for their own learning."
"Just as gratifying," Matsuoka says, "is watching gifted students race ahead, unshackled for the first time in their school careers."
How These Tools Do the Adapting
"Decoding Adaptive" also documents EdSurge's research to understand how and when adaptive learning tools actually change a student's learning experience.
They found that the way a tool adapts can be categorized in three ways:
"When a student makes an error, tools with adaptive content respond with feedback and hints based on the student's specific misunderstanding. ... They also take individual skills and break them down into smaller pieces, depending on how a student responds, without changing the overall sequence of skills."
"These tools change the questions a student sees, based on his or her response to the previous question. The difficulty of questions will increase as a student answers them accurately. If the student struggles, the questions will get easier."
"Tools with 'adaptive sequence' have a lot going on behind the scenes. These tools are continuously collecting and analyzing student data to automatically change what a student sees next; from the order of skills a student works on, to the type of content a student receives."
"If a learner was not in class during a period when a particular skill was introduced and years later was learning a new skill that built on that prior knowledge, that learner would struggle. Adaptive sequencing tools could help that student go back and find this gap and learn this content first, rather than in the same sequence as everyone else."
According to the report, the edtech market is flooded by tools that offer, or claim to offer, adaptive learning features.
Its researchers road-tested 24 different adaptive learning tools. The findings are helpful for educators assessing technologies for use in their classrooms:
"It's one thing to recommend a skill, but it's another to recommend a skill and the best piece of content for learning that skill. Of the tools we researched that have adaptive sequencing, only 30% take the extra step of recommending content that's proven to be the best for students."
"Answering a question correctly is important, but so is the process it took to get there. Some adaptive tools can collect data on how students learn and use it to create a more complex picture of students' abilities."
"One of the benefits of large amounts of data on how students learn is being able to compare how educators think students learn, to how they actually learn. One way that adaptive tools are helping to do this is by capturing the order of skills that students are actually using to learn content."
What This Means for the Classroom
The students entering America’s classrooms come from more diverse backgrounds and bring a wider set of needs and abilities than ever before in history. By contrast, funding for schools grows modestly at best. In most segments of life, when we’ve tried to do more with the same (or fewer) resources, we’ve invented tools to help."
"Adaptive learning is alluring ... because it's aligned to an educator's ultimate goal of helping every student achieve his or her maximum potential through differentiation," the report continues.
"There are also many challenges .... Most adaptive tools are used in learning environments that are led by teachers, which means they need to be able to work in harmony with teachers as the leader."
Adds Michael B. Horn in his foreword:
"This technology can accelerate our knowledge of what learning experiences work best ... so that educators can adapt to a reality in which they can help all children find their passions and reach their fullest potential."
Adam Bauserman has taught in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and in college. He has teaching expertise in general education, special education, and gifted education.
"I got my first teaching job years ago when my predecessor had to leave school because students had poisoned his coffee with cleaning fluid," Adam says.
"More than half of the students in that class were failing at the time. By the end of the year, we had a less than 5-percent failure rate," he says.
Today, Adam is an implementation specialist with Pearson—helping teachers grapple with behavioral challenges in the classroom.
"Doctor Behave" offers periodic webinars on various topics.
"My goal is for participants to take at least one thing away from the training," Adam says. "And to have some fun during the process."
Making the Most of Classroom Data
Adam is leading an upcoming webinar he's calling "Year in Review: Making the Most of Your Data."
"People focus so much of their time on student academic data, behavioral data often gets pushed to the side," Adam says.
"Teachers are also unaware of how much data they have about student behavior," he says.
Adam helps educators with tips on how to compile the data, organize the data—and make sense of it.
"Take fighting, for example," Adam says. "Pull all the incidents into one data set and pin down 'Where is it happening?' and 'When is it happening?' Seeing correlations in the data often help educators develop successful responses to these behaviors, especially when they often seem so hard to fix."
The Top Three Behavioral Challenges
Adam recently polled teachers about the toughest behavioral problems in their classrooms. The top three—and his suggestions about how to get them out of your classroom—are listed below.
"The bottom line," Adam says, "is that inside the four walls of a classroom, teachers need to be prepared to bend a little bit when they're thinking about rules and expectations."
"If rules are set in stone," he says, "they get pushed—and the walls come down."
"I became a teenage mother in high school and almost gave up on my dreams completely. However, my teachers showed me the many options that were still available if I continued my education. These positive experiences at school inspired me to become a teacher. ... I entered this profession with a passion for the work that I do and an understanding that my work would extend beyond the classroom and into the world."
Jahana teaches history at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut.
A 12-year veteran of the teaching profession, Jahana has done a lot of work outside the classroom "with the goal of increasing awareness and interest in education as a career." It's an effort to create a "future pipeline of teachers."
"While the focus should always remain on students, recruiting, supporting and retaining culturally competent and diverse educators cannot be overlooked. Teachers, administrators and school faculty play a key role in student success."
A Shortage of Experienced Teachers
"Experts tell us that on average, it takes four to five years for teachers to feel comfortable in the classroom and to become proficient in their teaching," says Dr. Kathy McKnight, Principal Director of Research at Pearson.
"We're also seeing 40- to 50-percent of new teachers leaving the profession before they get to that five-year mark," she says.
Last fall, for example, hundreds of principals across Washington State who were surveyed talked of a teacher shortage "crisis." Several other states, including California, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kansas, are scrambling to staff their schools with qualified teachers.
This has obvious consequences for the goal of getting an effective teacher in front of every student.
"So many teachers feel like they're not treated as professionals," Kathy says. "They feel over-managed, they're not rewarded for their expertise, and they don't feel like they have a voice in the education system."
"There are lots of opportunities for teachers to feel more professional and more valued," Kathy says.
"They can be content specialists, pedagogy specialists, technology specialists," she says. "Some can be included in district or state education policy decisions. And others can take on research, or work with policymakers."
"All of this helps teachers grow as teachers and leaders," Kathy says.
It also helps retain teachers who might have otherwise left.
"In our interviews with teachers for our study," Kathy says, "a good number of them said that the opportunities they had as a result of the career advancement model at their school made them decide to stay in the profession, whereas before, they had been contemplating leaving."
New Generations, New Definitions of Teaching
Attracting future teachers to the classroom—and keeping them in the classroom—means new approaches to recruitment and retention.
"Generation Y is expected to make up half of the teaching workforce by 2020," Kathy says.
"Unlike prior generations, this cohort is less likely to take on careers without opportunity to advance," she says. "So we're thinking about new flexibilities in the way work is structured to meet the needs of the younger generations, like splitting up the week or the day between two teachers."
"There's also a cohort of potential teachers I've heard referred to as 'sunsetters,'" Kathy says. "These are people who have reached the end of another career and now want to teach. How do we bring them in to the profession? We need to think about how we make them part of the conversation as well."
The Value of Feeling Valued
"I think about my own profession as a researcher," Kathy says. "I love doing what I do. I feel like it's valued by my colleagues. I have an expertise that people need. People trust me to do good work. Why would we think teachers wouldn't want the same?"