Busting 6 Myths About Adaptive Learning

Busting 6 Myths About Adaptive Learning
Irene Jimenez/SweetRush
Summary: Adaptive learning has many advantages, but it’s not widely used by organizations because of common myths that exist—but here are the realities of each. Also, discover how to address some of adaptive learning’s challenges in your learning design.

6 Myths And 4 Challenges In Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning is a learning design that tailors training to the skills, understanding, and interests of individual learners. There are compelling reasons to do it: it can drive deeper learning, reduce the time (and hence expense) it takes learners to achieve mastery, and create a more joyful experience, which comes when learners feel in control, and when the content is directly relevant to their needs.

Given these advantages, you might expect adaptive learning to be widely used by organizations. But that’s not the case. Most organizational training is still of the one-size-fits-all variety, that forces all learners through all content whether they need it or not, often with restrictions that require that they click all hotspots or accordions and watch all videos.

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.

Why is that? Reasons are numerous, but many stem from 6 myths or misconceptions about adaptive learning and what it takes to deliver it.

But, that’s not to say that adaptive learning is simple. To build effective adaptive learning, you must overcome 4 genuine challenges. Let’s start by dispelling the 6 common misconceptions, then exploring the 4 challenges.

Busting 6 Myths About Adaptive Learning

1. Everyone Needs To See Everything

People often get into the mindset that some content is so important, everyone needs to see it: they don’t want to risk someone missing important stuff, which may happen when people can skip around.

People are in control of their own minds, and just because their eyeballs were forced onto a piece of content doesn’t mean they got anything out of it. A training developer has to trust that, if the content is made relevant to learners’ work, lives, goals, and interests, they will likely be motivated to learn. And if they don’t see the relevance, no amount of forcing them to go through it will work.

2. You Have To Design For The Lowest Common Denominator

When designing a course, building a presentation, or writing a book, you have to decide what explanations and examples you need to include, and what you can leave out because the audience won’t benefit from seeing it. This leads to a tendency to leave stuff in because it’s better for learners to receive it even though they already know it than to have learners who need it not receive it. That is, you aim for the lowest common denominator of understanding.

This mindset leads to bloated content that is more onerous to read and can bore people in the know. Better to teach to the highest common denominator and fill in when people need it, via diagnostics or something as simple as a "More" button.

3. Freedom Means Confusion

If learners are allowed to skip around and take in only the training they wish, there is sometimes a fear that they will become lost, the narrative will become muddy, and confusion will arise. This might be called the Wikipedia effect: read an article, click a link to another article, then another article, and in time you forget what you were originally in there for.

Certainly, this is a possibility. But with careful learning design, and organization of the content, as well as intelligent UI/UX such as a "Back" button, breadcrumbs, and so on, learners can still be granted freedom to move about without worrying that they might lose the narrative.

4. It Requires Much More Work Than Conventional Training

Since grade school, we have been taught how to weave a narrative, to build a story or exposition with a beginning, middle, and end. Consequently, we tend to organize schemas along the same lines. However, adaptive learning is inherently nonlinear: Jane sees X, and Joe sees Y. The nonlinear narrative is new to most and takes a different kind of skill set to master—you have to envision multiple paths through the content you’re assembling. It’s usually easier just to create a slideshow.

Is it too difficult to do for the average training developer? For some, maybe. But with practice and a methodical process for thinking about and incorporating adaptive learning techniques into a course, most should be able to do it without significantly increasing the amount of work they have to do. And, in fact, it may save some time in the end, since it often means they don’t have to wrestle with what to leave out and what to put in.

5. It’s Too Hard To Review And Approve

Typically, IDs need to run content past senior stakeholders, SMEs, legal, and others for approval. There’s little question that reviewing adaptive learning content can be more time-consuming than reviewing an adaptive learning course because you have to envision all of the possible paths through the content, rather than just one, as is the case with an animation or "page-turner" eLearning course.

It doesn’t have to be overly laborious to review when one gets the hang of it, and/or if tools are used to simplify the task. For example, with proper annotation (for example, templates that show optional comments in-line), the ability to review and comment in a prototype rather than in some approximation such as a Word document, the task is fairly straightforward. And with some preparation (explaining the purpose and intent of adaptive learning), most stakeholders should be able to review all the content.

6. You Need Specialized Technology

Many vendors that tout the value of adaptive learning also pitch their proprietary (and often expensive) technologies to provide it, leading some to believe that it’s required.

While specialized technology can make adaptive learning easier to deliver, and sometimes more powerful, one can do adaptive learning without it. Most eLearning authoring tools support adaptive learning (for example, allowing you to provide links to optional materials). Some LMSs offer the means to assign learning via pretests or by role. PDFs and simple web pages can provide optional links. And, it can even be done in a classroom, for example, using a "flipped classroom" approach, so the classroom portion can be devoted to answering questions (which is adaptive learning at its finest).

4 Genuine Challenges

At the same time, someone contemplating shifting to an adaptive learning approach to teach a given subject does have some thinking to do. Adaptive learning introduces complexities not found in traditional training that must be accounted for in learning design.

1. Logistics

If you have a group of individuals needing instruction quickly, it’s cost-effective to pull together some slides, bring them all together (physically or virtually), and teach them the same thing at the same time. Quick and easy. Differentiated instruction requires some more thought, since bringing them into a classroom together likely precludes it, the burden on the instructor being too great. In some situations, the speed with which one-size-fits-all training can be put together outweighs the advantages of adaptive learning. You are in fact engaged in nonadaptive learning as we speak.

2. Fairness

If this population receives this instruction, and that population receives something else, is it equitable? Is it fair that Bob can test out of training, while Bill is forced to take it? Adaptive learning may inadvertently favor one population over another. When developing adaptive learning, we have to think about how our audience will feel about it (for example, being forced to do something others can skip), and ideally we collect data to ensure the training is free of some unintended bias.

3. Diagnosis And treatment

If we’re going to offer different training to different people, we need to be sure that our decisions about who gets what are sound. Let’s say we construct a course that allows people to test out if they can pass an assessment we build. Can we truly say that the assessment we created is an adequate indicator that someone doesn’t need some piece of training? That’s hard to do. Training is still largely an art, and decisions as to who gets what training is bound to involve some guesswork.

4. Outcome measurement

In organizational development, we need a method of determining whether our adaptive learning has been successful, to justify its use. But, can we truly compare the outcome of one individual, who received X training, with the outcome of another individual, who received Y training? Are we not, at least to some extent, measuring the subpopulations we chose to put through X and Y, rather than the instruction we chose to provide to each, in and of itself?

But You Can Do It!

These challenges aren’t trivial, but they aren’t insurmountable either. You just have to come up with ways to address each. And put the myths behind you. 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.

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