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Has the Holy Grail of Adaptive Tech Been Discovered?

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As students do more of their work on computers, new technology is able to track their performance in ways it couldn't before. It isn't simply a matter of which answers a student gets right or wrong, for example, but how much time they take to answer questions, how and when they hesitate or stall. Taking this data, engineers can build algorithms that are able to examine students' work and help deliver to them a personalized, or "adaptive" learning solution.

Adaptive learning technologies have long been considered a crucial component in helping students progress at their own level, and until now, it's only been used here and there in the K-12 setting and with test preparation companies that help students ace their SATs, GMATs, and the like. But one company in this space, Knewton, has made big strides towards making its platform available in schools, not just at home.

This week, Knewton announced that its adaptive learning platform had been selected by four schools -- Penn State University, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the State University of New York, and Mount St. Mary's University -- to help power college readiness courses. These online, self-paced classes are designed to help incoming students who may not be ready for college-level academics. This is an important group to help succeed in school at this crucial stage, since about 25% of students who enter college need some math remediation and about 50% of students who require remediation fail to graduate.

Using adaptive learning technology, these classes can identify the areas in which students need help, deliver content specific to those needs, and deliver it in such a way to help a student build on what she or he knows and how she or he learns best.


The universities that are implementing Knewton's Math College Readiness Course join Arizona State University, which has been using the technology since earlier this year. An indication, perhaps, of the success of that program is ASU's announcement that it plans to add the adaptive learning technology to other classes beyond just the math mediation ones. Knewton's platform will be used in two new, blended learning classes -- MAT 117 (College Algebra) and MAT 142 (College Mathematics) -- for which the company has partnered with Pearson in order to develop the curriculum.

Ed tech experts, like Diana Rhoten, director of the Knowledge Institutions program and the Digital Media and Learning project at the Social Science Research Council, have been anticipating a product like this for a while.

“The holy grail for any company is not just creating a product that gives instant feedback, but that has a truly adaptive learning engine. And there are few that really do,” Rhoten said in an interview last year. “I don’t use the term adaptive learning loosely, but the market is starting to.” She mentioned Knewton as one of the trailblazers in the field that's working on engineering the technology to truly adapt to users’ response –  collecting data over time and understanding patterns from the user’s mistakes.

It looks as though more universities are interested in taking advantage of adaptive learning -- it might just prove to be a groundbreaking way to leverage technology for more effective learning.

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