Adaptive learning is the tech solution to personalised learning plans we desperately need.

I remember my first class at university, a stifling hot tuesday morning, in a packed lecture theater of hundreds of soon to be teachers. It was in an aptly named course called “Introduction to Education” and funnily enough, the lecturer talked a lot about the fundamental components of teaching that we’d all have to cover over the next four years of our double degrees. One of the most obvious yet, least explored concepts that came out of that lecture was the idea that each student is different and may require a different teaching approach. This is a logical statement, but never really sat right with me. Sure, we’re told about it, must demonstrate we can do it, but within the context of a class, a cohort and a school, an individual student can quickly become “students”. How do we ensure our students don’t get fed a “one size fits all” approach and receive the personalised learning they deserve?

One of the core teaching strategies deployed in most education degrees is some variation of the personalised learning plan, or PLP. The personalised learning plan is meant to be a living document, written by the teacher and student (sometimes including their family) that reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of a given student (New Jersey Department of Education, 2014). Through this reflection, they plan and agree on the tailored learning experience needed to support their weaknesses and expand their strengths. This result of this can be anything from adjusting the target outcomes for a lesson or assessment, to more one on one focused teaching and learning. These plans require constant evolution as the student learns, and requires both the teacher and student to be committed to managing their plan and working towards their goals (New Jersey Department of Education, 2014).

Even if there is no documented personalised learning plan for a given student, complex adaptive support from an educator can be witnessed in the “Zone of Proximal Development” concept explained by the educational psychologist Lev Vygotsgy. Vygostky (1978) proposed the idea of the difference between what a learner can do without help, and what he or she can do with help. This has been explored and expanded to an elaborate support matrix that evaluates and supports this zone of development through varied instruction, encouragement, demonstration and general scaffolding techniques. This directly impacts on the educator as they automatically and manually have to identify, guage and adapt to the needs of the individual student during everyday instruction whilst recalling the last piece of instruction or assessment and how it was adapted.

What does this mean for a teacher and their learners if they decide to take the approach of creating a PLP document for each student? Well let’s look at the numbers. The following is based on my personal experience when I was teaching in Australia. Compared to some other countries and even teachers in my schools, I actually had a pretty light load. In one term I was teaching 4 unique subjects across 9 different classes, each class being held twice a week. That’s 18 individual lessons per week. With an average class size of 23, I would now be responsible for writing, updated and reviewing 414 individual documents. Even if each interaction with a student and the PLP document was 1 minute long, to find, open, review, edit, discuss, save and close, it’s still going to take me just under 7 hours a week. This hasn’t even yet taken into account sourcing, validating the efficacy of and then issuing individual tasks to the students before collecting, evaluating and returning them.

Now theoretically at this point, all we’re doing is following what we’re told as teachers to do. But in the same way blended and flipped learning have changed education with technology, technology can help change personalised learning. Using adaptive learning technology to provide personalised learning isn’t a substitute for teacher involvement. Adaptive learning technology by its very nature is an academic “add-on” to replace the manual elements of the PLP process teachers would otherwise struggle to achieve, and in the process promote a quality, personal learning experience for their students.

Adaptive learning technology directly and indirectly, through a mix of complex modeling, bayesian networks and item response theory provide deep insights to your learners, while also providing them the right content and assessment at the right time. Adaptive learning removes not only the need to manually micromanage the personal learning of your students but also harness our already existing vast computer power to close the teacher, student, parent feedback loop with rich, contextual learning analytics.

References
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

New Jersey Department of Education (2014). A GUIDE FOR IMPLEMENTING PERSONALIZED STUDENT LEARNING PLAN (PSLP) PROGRAMS. Retrieved September 19, 2015, from http://www.state.nj.us/education/cte/pslp/PSLPGuide.pdf

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