Adaptive Learning In Education: The Next Gen Of Educational eContent

Adaptive Learning In Education: The Next Gen Of Educational eContent
Summary: “Adaptive learning” has been a frequently used term in education for many years but today, with the advent of more ubiquitous technology in schools, education systems are placing more emphasis on the advantages of leveraging adaptive techniques within both assessments and instructional programs.

The Role Of Adaptive Learning In Education

Adaptive learning, in the domain of computer-delivered instruction, is now used as a fairly generic term and can describe a wide range of functionality from the fairly simple to the highly complex. The basic idea of adaptivity in learning is the ability to modify the presentation of material in response to a student’s performance.

To Be, Or Not To Be? The New Challenges Of Educational ePublishing
This eBook will provide you with all the essentials to move from printed materials to digital.

From the 1970s to 1980s “integrated learning systems” were developed that deployed complex and hidden algorithms to determine an individual student’s path through a given set of materials. This type of complex adaptivity today is found in research-based, specialist programs such as DreamBox (Math) or Carnegie Math where the program adapts the sequence and material presented based on analysis of specific learning style and a deep, complex, and iterative analysis of a student’s understanding of a mathematical concept.

Complex adaptivity is also seen in programs such as Knewton which adapts and personalizes its presentation of material based on its system’s cumulative experience of student responses and errors. Outside of these specialist developments, the challenge today for any developers of instructional content is whether and how to add some level of adaptivity to their programs or courses, in order to better “personalize” or tailor instruction to a student’s needs.

At its simplest level, this adaptivity is often referred to as branching technology, where a student’s actions and responses in a task can be calibrated to determine the level and scope of the next activity. In this article, I would like to outline some of the issues involved in creating this simple type of adaptivity.

Content Structure

Learning materials, or instructional courses designed to teach new concepts, usually have a hierarchical structure, and adaptivity can be introduced at different levels of this hierarchy. Let me first start with a definition of these levels, and I will then go on to discuss adaptivity at each of the levels. The proposed levels may not match every kind of learning content exactly, but in my opinion they should broadly cover most types of instructional resource, course, or program.

The basic building block of the hierarchy is usually a Learning Object traditionally represented by a single screen (sometimes with pop-ups and scrolls) usually containing text, various multimedia resources, and interactive activities. Learning Objects are usually grouped into a Sequence that in practice corresponds to a user’s single learning session. You might think of a Sequence as a Lesson or a Chapter. The next level of this organization would be the “Course” which is a set of Sequences organized by a hierarchical table of contents. There may also be a higher level of organization, which corresponds to a set of Courses.

Content Or Learning Management System

In most cases, we can assume that all functions and navigation features are performed entirely within the Learning Object and Sequence. In other words, all the content features of a Learning Object and Sequence are not dependent on a Learning Management System (LMS).

This also means that all adaptive learning features introduced within the Learning Object or Sequence at this level should work on any Learning Management System. At the higher level of Course and Set of Courses, we need to assume that these structures are usually managed by the Learning Management System.

This also means that the Learning Management System will be responsible for navigation between the Sequences in the same Course, as well as between different Courses and their Sequences. The above assumptions are critical to our discussion.

With a simple authoring tool we can provide adaptive learning features at the Learning Object and Sequence level and these features will work on each and every Learning Management System, while all adaptivity involving more than one Sequence needs to relate to Learning Management System functionality because the Learning Management System is responsible for navigation between the Sequences and assigning learners to Sequences or Courses.

This means that the development of adaptivity at the level of the Course and Set of Courses is more complex and to date has been more difficult due to
 the lack of industry standards for interoperability.

Learning Material: How To Measure Students’ Performance

This is why it is easier for content developers to focus on the first two levels of adaptivity: the Learning Object and the Sequence. Focusing on the Learning Object and Sequence level may, on first consideration, seem very limited, but in fact this should be sufficient to enhance the quality of the learning experience for many subjects and topics.

Traditionally, we have used interactive activities, and sometimes adaptive paths, for assessment purposes to evaluate and measure students’ knowledge and skills. Interactive activities, and particularly those with adaptivity inbuilt, are not yet so widely used in learning content.

Research shows that using interactive activities can retrieve students’ knowledge, enhance results, as well as make the learning process much more efficient and engaging. Just to digitize the textbook model and provide large chunks of instruction followed by questions is not the most effective way of presenting instructional material. A more subtle approach is to interlace interactive activities with learning material that also offers metacognition – the crucial element of retrieval practice that gives students immediate feedback on what they know and what they do not know.

The additional challenge today when creating instructional content is to add adaptivity to personalize the learning alongside the interactivity providing engagement.

First, it is important to enable the student to receive feedback on their interactions, and then to provide more content appropriate to his or her responses.

Using the right authoring tool it is possible to create Learning Objects and Sequences that do both these things.

With interactivities created in this tool, a student answers all the questions (which can be in multiple interactive formats such as select, drag & drop, edit, fill in gap, complete graph etc.) and then selects the “Check” icon available in each Learning Object. All correct and wrong answers are marked respectively. Depending how the learning path is constructed, the student can move on to the next set of content or repeat the whole process until all answers are correct and the overall result is 100%.

During this process, the Learning Object adds up a cumulative number of wrong answers after each selection of the Check icon. Without any extra programming of the Learning Objects, the tool will collate and reveal to student and teacher the number of attempts, the wrong answers selected and build a rich report of the student’s interactions.

More importantly to today’s discussion of adaptivity, the tool can then use those responses, to select what Learning Object or Sequence of Learning Objects the student is presented with next, based on the number and type of errors in previous interactivities.

With the right authoring tool, content authors can build adaptivity logic at both levels: The Learning Object and Sequence. The type and number of errors used to create the algorithms in each activity depend on the type of instructional material being created and its level of difficulty and should be established by the content authors themselves in each case.


It is clear that the adaptive learning content preparation requires more effort than traditional single track content; more content has to be developed to cover every track, yet only a portion of it will be used by an individual student. Unfortunately, there is no mystical algorithm will remove this requirement!

Choosing the right authoring tool is crucial as its capability, functionality, and usability determine whether adaptive learning content can be built by authors and editorial staff or whether the development process has to be outsourced to software programmers.

If you want to explore practical examples of adaptive learning content, download the eBook To Be, Or Not To Be? The New Challenges Of Educational ePublishing.

Related articles:

1. Flipped Classrooms: Why And How To Flip Education?

2. Educational ePublishing: 7 Formats To Help You Go From Print To Digital

3. The Future Of Educational Publishers

4. eBook: To Be, Or Not To Be? The New Challenges Of Educational ePublishing