Adaptive Learning: How AI Is Transforming Education

Nathan Chandler
N. Chandler|11.23.16

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Nathan Chandler
November 23rd, 2016
If you are interested in technology, you have probably heard of adaptive learning and how it represents a new way in how AIs are developed. And you may have heard about how it can change how we teach our children.

But you may not know just how much educators are interested in adaptive learning. Earlier this month, McGraw-Hill Education acquired Redbird Advanced Learning, a company built on Stanford research that promises "the latest in adaptive instruction, gamification and digital project-based learning." This is on top of other acquisitions over the last few years which shows how one of the biggest textbook companies in the United States is intent on jumping on the adaptive learning train, never mind other educators.

AI and Adaptive Learning

What does artificial intelligence have to do with adaptive learning? You can look at the AI named AlphaGo which defeated the world's best Go player earlier this year. AlphaGo did not just memorize all the Go moves possible and brute force its way to a solution like Deep Blue did nearly 20 years ago. Instead, AlphaGo learned both through watching games played by other Go players as well and through playing games itself through its interconnected neural networks.

This, of course, is how a human learns to play Go. The difference is that AlphaGo can play and observe far more games than any human can, which enables it to learn new strategies and responses to moves. This sort of learning created an AI which surpassed expectations on what researchers felt AI to be capable of doing at this time.

But the real benefit of creating an AI which can learn like this is that it could also be capable of teaching. If AlphaGo focused on a particular player, it could pick up what areas that player struggles in and where he could improve. It is the idea behind this concept which is the basis behind adaptive learning, as AIs are brought into the classroom.

Changing the classroom

Adaptive learning is a big deal because it can individualize education. One challenge which every classroom faces is that while some children can instantly grasp anything the teacher lectures about, others require extra work, hopefully one on one, to understand those same concepts. The result are either bored or discouraged children, with only a small percentage in the middle staying satisfied.

But with adaptive learning, courses can be adapted to every individual. Look at the example of ALEKS as noted by Slate. Students sit down and load a program which teach them various aspects of mathematics. Algorithms analyze the students and note their weaknesses and strengths, then change the course around so that students can polish up areas which they may be struggling with. The result is a feedback loop where the computer responds to the students' needs and personalizes the course to best fit their talents. The results so far shows that adaptive learning promotes student engagement and the program can steadily increase the work so that the students can handle more difficult concepts.

ALEKS is not the only adaptive learning program used in the classroom. There is also AltSchool, which launched private schools three years ago which rely on adaptive learning processes. AltSchool is now partnering with other schools in an effort to bring those processes to more than a few private schools. While the progress will be slow, it shows how more schools are relying on adaptive learning and believe in its benefits.

These benefits are tilted more towards the fields of mathematics and science, as it is easier to craft adaptive learning programs, such as prep courses for CPA Exam candidates, in those subjects as opposed to more subjective fields such as English or the social sciences. Given our society's shortage of STEM majors in order to compete in a globalized economy, adaptive learning can help create more scientists and engineers who can in turn develop more technology.

A ways to go

Despite the progress which has been made, adaptive learning still has a ways until it can become ubiquitous. Clark Quinn with learning technology company Litmos outright admits that "we're still in the early stages" and that more knowledge is needed both with AI technology and figuring out just what role teachers will play in this new environment.

The latter concern is particularly problematic because there are fears that adaptive learning AI could combine with other piece of education technology to make teachers obsolete. Think about how certain, wealthier school districts are providing all of their students with free iPads. What you could see at some point in the future is that students pull out an iPad or tablet and essentially connect with an AI which can teach them without human help.

But is this necessarily a good thing? Some education experts point out that school is not just a place to learn facts. It is a place for children to interact with one another and learn the basics of communication, etiquette, and respect for others which are necessary to function in the adult world. The concern which these experts have is that by plonking children behind some artificial program which educates them for hours at a time, it will create an environment which will "diminish the many opportunities for human relationships to flourish, which is a hallmark of high-quality learning environments."

It is too soon to say what the effects of adaptive learning is for children and the classroom in general. But despite some concerns, adaptive learning has massive potential and the actions of education companies such as McGraw-Hill show that they believe it can help children across this country. Technology geeks should pay attention to the field of education to see how adaptive learning AI can help children and become more sophisticated at the same time.
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