Digging Deeper into the Meaning of Adaptivity in Educational Programs

Heather Walker

These days, the buzz word in education and in the mainstream media is “adaptive.” One can hardly watch a television show without at least four commercials mentioning artificial intelligence (AI). All of this talk about AI and adaptivity may leave some to wonder, “Just what is adaptive, and does it mean the same to everyone?”

What is Adaptive?
According to Webster’s Dictionary1, adaptive is an adjective meaning “providing, contributing to, or marked by adaptation: arising as a result of adaptation.” Oh, well that really cleared things up, right? Probably not!

Basically, adaptive means to change in response to a variable. Adaptivity is all around us, from smartphones with predictive text to thermostats that regulate temperature when we are home or away. In the context of education, the variable that is driving that response is the student, and the item that needs to adapt is the instruction.

In an EdSurge special report2 on adaptive learning, Peter Burrows estimates, “So far, adaptive technology has touched only a fraction of America’s K–12 students—maybe 20 percent, based on an informal poll of educators and entrepreneurs.” Traditionally, educators have expected students to adapt or change to the environment of school and with the learning that is being provided. Now, students are expecting teachers, schools, and districts to adapt to them. This is a reasonable expectation, given that so many aspects of a modern-day student’s life include some type of adaptivity—remember all those commercials?

But is it reasonable to require teachers to adapt to 20 to 30 students in a classroom on every activity of every lesson? If you asked that question to a group of students, the answer would most likely be “yes”— however, a group of teachers would likely respond, “yes, but how?”

In a recent study3 conducted by PwC in conjunction with the Business-Higher Education Forum, we learn that of 2,000 K–12 teachers surveyed, only 10 percent reported feeling secure in their ability to incorporate “higher-level technology” into their classrooms, highlighting a need for quality training programs to develop teachers’ skills with emerging tech.

Does Adaptive Mean the Same Thing to Everyone?
That is an easy answer—no! Especially in the edtech industry. Many publishing companies today claim to have adaptive instruction embedded into their technology. And because this term is relatively new, most of us educators nod our heads, check a box on the rubric, and say, “Great, I like that!” However, what a teacher thinks is “adaptive” and what a publisher delivers can be two completely different things.

EdSurge recently did some digging into this area of adaptivity (Decoding Adaptive)4. What they found is that some educational publishers will adapt the content, some will adapt the assessment, some will adapt the sequence, some will adapt two of those areas, and a few will adapt on all three. Let’s talk about what adaptivity in these three areas means:

  • Content – Adaptive content is typically tied to a response given by the student. If a student answers a question incorrectly, adaptive content will explain to the student why their answer is incorrect. Sometimes their response can also be associated with a misconception that is common in the skill area, and the AI can clarify the mistake. This type of adaptivity is most often found in mathematical instruction.
  • Assessment – Adaptive assessment is one of the more common forms of adaptivity in the classroom. Assessments are adaptive when the questions change based on the responses given by the student on previous items. If a student answers a question correctly, the next question will be on the same level or more challenging. When a student responds incorrectly, the next question will be on the same level or less challenging. The assessment will continue until either all standards are assessed, or the system has learned the student’s area of weakness—thus, influencing instruction.
  • Sequence – Adaptive sequence is the most sophisticated of the adaptive options and may also be difficult to understand or envision from a reviewer’s perspective. With adaptive sequence, the student learning path is constantly adjusting based on every click a student makes. The accuracy of the student’s responses and the amount of assistance the student required on a question or activity will both factor in to decide what content is served up next. Adaptive sequencing allows for a truly unique and personalized learning environment for students.

If you are in the position of reviewing educational technology for your school or district, be sure to dig deeper into this question of adaptivity to ensure you are getting what you expect from an adaptive program.

Is it Reasonable to Expect Adaptivity in the Classroom?
This leads me back to the question, “Is it reasonable to expect adaptivity in the classroom?” Yes, with the help of technology, I think it is. Imagine doing adaptive instruction in the classroom with no aid. The steps would look something like this:

  1. Administer a baseline assessment.
  2. Score the assessment.
  3. Analyze the assessment results, looking for strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Organize a lesson to meet the needs of those strengths and weaknesses.
  5. During the lesson, constantly monitor progress and adjust the lesson based on students’ performance.
  6. Analyze the results of the lesson outcomes.
  7. Modify and plan the next lesson.
  8. Repeat for each student.

A little overwhelming, right? I remember being a third-grade teacher administering every student’s oral fluency reading test, leveling the students, leveling the books, and matching students to books. I thought it was exhausting, and that exercise only needed to be done periodically throughout the year, not every day on every lesson.

With the help of technology, teachers now have the ability to adapt daily instruction to fit the needs of every student in the classroom.  It's important to note, as Peter Burrows concludes in his EdSurge special report, “Nobody talks about technology replacing teachers anymore, or even about the ability of technology to raise test scores on its own.”2

Dr. Steven Ross, senior researcher and professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins2, agrees, “It all boils down to good teachers, good students, good parents, and good principals.” When you have these key players in place, supported by an adaptive technology that truly meets your needs, then you have the potential to make a real difference on student outcomes.

Fuel Education offers adaptive instruction on content, assessment, and sequence with our award-winning programs like Stride and Summit. Click here to learn more.

About Heather Walker
M.Ed., Reading Instruction
B.Ed., Elementary Education & Instruction

Heather is a lifelong learner and educator. She began her career in education as a third-grade teacher in the suburbs of Kansas City before transitioning to educational publishing, where she has 14 years of experience in roles ranging from Curriculum Specialist to Director of Supplemental Products.

Now, as Director of School Solutions, Marketing for Fuel Education, Heather works closely with product development to ensure a positive learning experience for modern educators and students. When she isn't busy digging into the layers of adaptive learning, she enjoys spending time with her family traveling and exploring new places. You can connect with Heather on LinkedIn.

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