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Policy Initiative Spotlight: Adaptive Education

by Steven J. Markovich
July 1, 2013

A first grade student listens during a computer lesson in school (Courtesy Reuters). A first grade student listens during a computer lesson in school (Courtesy Reuters).


If many technology startups and established education firms have their way, the future of education will more closely resemble a one-on-one private tutor than a traditional schoolhouse classroom with a single teacher lecturing to twenty-five students seated in neatly arranged desks. These firms are developing tools for adaptive education, an approach that analyzes data in real-time to tailor a lesson to each student’s needs and strengths, to reinforce concepts not fully absorbed, and deploy techniques effective for that particular student.

New York City’s Department of Education launched School of One (SO1) in 2009 to improve the performance of middle school math students through adaptive education. Pilot programs in three schools throughout NYC deploy a variety of formats, from live online virtual instruction and remote tutoring to small and large group teacher instruction.

Detailed real-time assessment allows educators to track a student’s progress in mastering the nearly 400 math skills in SO1’s roadmap for grades 4 through 9. Students proceed at their own pace. If gaps in learning appear, material is repeated, and new skills are introduced to build upon mastery of more elementary concepts.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other educators have praised SO1’s approach and the program is spreading to Chicago and Washington, DC. An NYU study published in 2012 found mixed results on improving test scores, but cautioned that educational innovation is challenging to implement and success is usually incremental rather than abrupt. If SO1’s approach of ensuring a firm foundation of basic skills before advancing to more complex material is accurate, then improved performance may be more pronounced over several years.

There is an emerging ecosystem of adaptive education providers; here are a few prominent examples. News Corporation’s Amplify provides a curriculum that follows the Common Core and combines game-like experiences with analytical tools. Knewton—a NYC-based startup—provides a technology platform that its content creator partners, such as textbook giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, use to create adaptive experiences for any subject matter. Many other startups exist as well, from Australia’s Smart Sparrow, whose platform allows anyone to create an interactive learning experience to San Francisco’s Inkling, which creates electronic textbooks that incorporate quizzes and self-assessment tools.

Proponents of adaptive education see a revolution— The Economist argued that the new technology is ready to remake U.S. schools and then the world’s—but not everyone is sanguine. One concern is that the student-teacher relationship may weaken in an educational environment increasingly reliant upon technology. Some critics fear that qualified teachers may be replaced by more technology and less qualified instructors. Another concern is that teacher oversight and evaluation will become more overbearing with richer datasets.

While adaptive education may change the job of a teacher, some changes will likely be beneficial to all: automation of repetitive tasks like quiz scoring, ability to leverage high quality curricula and learning content, and more motivated students. Some experts believe individual teachers could earn higher pay, as more technology enables a well-qualified teacher to effectively manage a larger classroom.

Well-off students may disproportionally benefit from greater access to the new technologies, but economies of scale should help poorer school districts benefit as well. Many new resources should be affordable, some are even free; Khan Academy provides a free library of over four thousand high quality instructional videos across many subjects with adaptive assessments.

Adaptive education does face some technological limits. For instance, while automated essay grading systems have been able to closely replicate scores given by human graders, experts have found ways to game them. Programs that cannot understand the content of the argument use the presence of long words and sentences as proxies for complex thought and clear expression.

Still, with U.S. education slipping ten spots in both high school and college rates over the past three decades, there may be a lot to gain from successful implementation. Currently, there are limited data to support the promises of adaptive education, but most experts see large potential in a teaching approach that allows students to progress at their own learning pace.


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