What Is Adaptive Learning And How Does It Benefit Training?
Irene Jimenez/SweetRush

Tailor Learner Experience With Adaptive Learning

Each of us has a different understanding of the world, different potentials to achieve our goals and so different learning needs. Yet organizations often deliver the same training to everyone, as if we’re exactly the same. This means none of us ever gets the exact training we need. We may learn from it, but we’re not becoming proficient as efficiently as we would if each of us received training adjusted to our individual demands.

eBook Release: Hats Off To Adaptive Learning: Tailoring Corporate Training For Each Learner
eBook Release
Hats Off To Adaptive Learning: Tailoring Corporate Training For Each Learner
Discover how adaptive learning works, when to use it, and its many benefits.

Think about your own training. Ask yourself: How often have you not gotten what you needed when you needed it, or gotten what you soon forgot?

This is the root problem that adaptive learning is designed to solve. Deliver training that provides exactly what each learner needs, and only what is needed.

So what is adaptive learning? Our definition is extremely broad:

Keeping the definition loose is intentional because we contend it can be achieved along a full spectrum of technical complexity. A training design may be adaptive by using what we refer to as Artificial Intelligence or machine learning (collectively, "AI"). But, it may be as simple as giving learners optional links, or doing some interesting branching, or providing the opportunity to make mistakes and supplying helpful tutoring to recover, or creating learning content on the fly as they engage in cognitive activities that reliably surface learning needs. All of these can be achieved in any number of ways, with or without "AI." We feel that the goal is essentially the same, regardless of whether we use algorithms, nonlinear narrative (branching), optional links, and/or human intervention to achieve it.

Adaptive Learning Examples From Everyday Life

Here’s an example of "adaptive learning" that doesn’t involve computers at all. Imagine that you want to learn how to bake bread, so you ask your mom to teach you. She knows bread baking: how to mix ingredients, how to knead, how long to let the dough rise, how to bake it. She also knows you tend to dump ingredients haphazardly, like to get your hands dirty in order to learn, and might easily mess it up, such as failing to add flour as you knead so the dough sticks to the countertop. But she’s your mom, so she’s patient. She lets you make mistakes and figure things out, and always intervenes as necessary to save the day, so you don’t throw the glob of dough that’s supposed to be your loaf across the room in frustration. And she’s able to answer your many questions, like how much salt to add to the flour as you mix and what "proofing the yeast" means, so you pick up expertise as you go.

In short, your mom will adapt the learning environment just for you, so you learn to bake a loaf of bread pretty quickly—certainly more quickly than if she had made you sit through a YouTube tutorial. She does this by using the knowledge she has of you and of the subject matter. Her approach might be different for your older brother, the more patient sibling who also has more experience baking: your training is tailored just to you and your unique situation as a learner at that moment in your life.

Contrast the above with a principal’s orientation to parents at the start of a school year.

Parents come into the auditorium with varying interests. Some have sent many children through the school and just want to hear what’s changed. Others are doing it for the first time and looking to absorb whatever they can. Some have specific questions they want to ask about their child and the care they will be given, others are seeking general orientation on school policy and procedures, and still, others are there only because their spouse or child insisted. They all take their seats, and the principal begins showing slides and talking about the classes, the teachers, and policies and procedures, delivering the same information to everyone.

What is the result of this learning design? Some will quickly become bored because they already know (or think they know) what’s being described. Others will become confused because the information doesn’t connect to their understanding. Some latch on to a few pieces of information and miss the rest; others nod off. None learn as much as they might have if an individualized approach had been taken.

Online training resembles the school meeting more often than the child learning to bake bread. And much of it is mandated: learners must sit through every video and interact with every component in order to complete the course. So everyone must invest, say, 30 or 40 minutes, regardless of whether they’re bored, or lost, or what have you. That’s not only horribly inefficient but may breed a strong dislike for training on the part of the learner, who may be reluctant to engage in any future training without being forced to do so.

In contrast to this one-size-fits-all approach, imagine an eLearning course that dynamically adjusts to an individual learner’s understandings, skills, and interests. In such a course, each person receives only the instruction needed and nothing that isn’t needed. Someone who requires more explanation, or more context or more practice, gets it, while someone who doesn’t can skip past. Training is just as long as necessary for each to master the content, without giving anyone what’s not needed.

Does that sound like training utopia, an unachievable ideal? In fact, there are a variety of ways to accomplish this, some technological, others involving Instructional Design, or a mix of both. To see this, here’s an example at the opposite end of the technological spectrum from the baking bread example.

A Digital Adaptive Learning Technique

Here’s a functional diagram for a course that provides adaptive learning. It’s the logic in an eLearning module that contains a set of lessons and has a final mastery exam to ensure that learners who took the course have gained the required proficiency.

Learners who enter the course confident they are proficient in the topic can take a "test-out" exam that determines whether they have mastered the subject and so skip directly to the final exam. If other learners are not confident, they can work through all of the lessons before taking the final assessment. And still, others can begin working through the lessons, decide they have the necessary proficiency, and then take the quiz to opt-out of the rest. Ultimately, different people will have different pathways through the course, yet all achieve the desired objectives in the end. And note that, other than the quiz, no additional content had to be created than if the course had been presented in a simple linear sequence.

Benefits Of Adaptive Learning To An Organization

Adaptive learning can bring a number of important benefits to an organization:

1. Less Boredom And Confusion

Learners do not have to sit through training that is not beneficial, which is a waste of time and money. If there are only 20 minutes of a 60-minute course that bring benefits to a given person, but the person has to sit through the whole hour, that’s 40 minutes that person could have been spent on something else. Similarly, if training is too hard, learners are likely to become lost, leading to unnecessary retaking of training and hours spent gaining mastery. Training that helps us get up to speed more efficiently leads to more time that can be spent actually getting work done.

2. Greater Retention

By not having to slog through training that isn’t relevant, a learner is more likely to pay attention to learning that is relevant and be more engaged by it. This leads to greater retention of the training content.

3. More Joy

Adult learners like to be in control of what they see and do; It’s a quality humans value in work experiences, especially in the United States. One-size-fits-all training takes agency away from us, which can lead to anger and frustration, even if that loss of control is ultimately good for us. By giving learners control over their learning, we empower them and likely make them happier. This translates into a better experience. If training brings us joy, we are more likely to seek it in situations in which it’s not mandated. If it doesn’t, we will avoid it unless it’s required, and even then, we rebel—it’s in our blood.

4. Easier Instructional Design

If a course is presented in a one-size-fits-all form, an Instructional Designer (ID) has to work hard to ensure that every bit of it is relevant to all of the targeted audience, in all situations. Do all stakeholders believe that these topics and these presentations are necessary and sufficient for each and every member of their community to work better? Probably not. This leads to an ID writing very cautiously, and rewriting and reworking, again and again. It may involve difficult decision-making as to what to include and what to omit.

If, alternatively, there is a means to assign content based on a learner’s knowledge and level of proficiency, an ID can craft content more easily and do less editing, because each stakeholder’s concern can be conveyed to the segment of the audience who needs it. The text also doesn’t have to be fit to the lowest common denominator of understanding. This leads to quicker training development.

So Why Not Use Adaptive Learning?

Given the advantages of adaptive learning, why aren’t more organizations doing it? Two obstacles often get in the way.

First, when faced with the need to teach a given subject, it’s difficult enough to figure out what needs to be taught, much less determine how different individuals might receive it, especially if those individuals number in the thousands. This is particularly true when the dominant approach is Instructor-Led Training (ILT), which generally has to be one-size-fits-all due to having a class full of students and an hour to get something done. Those who are converting ILT into digital learning often fail to see the opportunity to do things differently. The ability to consider the differing needs of learners, and adapt training to accommodate those differences, takes a skill set built by trying it dozens of times and learning from each attempt.

Second, many may not realize that there are ways to introduce adaptive learning to their training that don’t mandate extensive engineering or proprietary technology. Virtually all authoring tools, including Articulate Storyline and Trivantis Lectora, allow an eLearning developer to include adaptive learning techniques in a course without having to build complicated algorithms.

We encourage everyone to reap the advantages of adaptive learning, which will result in quicker training and happier learners. Download the eBook Hats Off To Adaptive Learning: Tailoring Corporate Training For Each Learner, and get to discover valuable insight into adaptive learning in corporate learning.

eBook Release: SweetRush
Our job is to help you achieve your objectives and be successful. Engage us at any point, from analysis to custom development (including e-learning, mobile, gamification, and ILT) to evaluation.