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Education Trends

New Frontiers of Adaptive Learning

Universities share how they are making strides with the use of adaptive courseware in the humanities.

college student working on computer

Most of the publicized examples of adaptive learning focus on its use in improving student outcomes in STEM courses, but some universities are seeing promising examples in the humanities as well. For example, the University of Mississippi Department of Writing and Rhetoric is using adaptive learning to help first-year writing students grasp rhetorical concepts.

"We used Lumen Learning software to build locally contextualized personalized learning courseware to address the readiness gap we often see in first-year composition," said Karen Forgette, assistant chair of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. She admitted that working with adaptive learning is not intuitive to composition instructors. "We base our assessments on student writing. For us, it was thinking about what personalized learning could offer in terms of our courses and then doing backward design to figure out how this could help us."

Forgette was speaking during an April 18 Future Trends Forum videoconference hosted by futurist Bryan Alexander, in which he led faculty members from the University of Mississippi and Oregon State University and attendees in a discussion of their adaptive learning efforts.

Collaborating for Student Success

Oregon State and the University of Mississippi joined with six other universities — Arizona State University, Colorado State University, Georgia State University, Northern Arizona University, Portland State University and the University of Louisville — in a three-year Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU) effort to scale up the use of adaptive courseware to increase student retention and graduation rates. The eight universities have been guided by the APLU's Personalized Learning Consortium and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (In January 2017, Campus Technology interviewed university leaders involved about ramping up these efforts; see "Scaling Up with Adaptive Learning.")

Patricia O'Sullivan, manager for the Personalized Learning & Adaptive Teaching Opportunities (PLATO) Program at the University of Mississippi, said it has been a great experience to be part of the APLU consortium. "We tend to be siloed at universities, not only in our own departments, but as institutions we are siloed, so it is really exciting to be part of work that connects so many institutions, and different kinds of institutions, across the country," she said.

During the videoconference, Sullivan was joined by Sara Clark, a mathematics instructor and academic adviser at Oregon State University. OSU's APLU project has involved college algebra, which Clark noted is the most commonly failed course in the country. "Our DFW [grades of D, F or withdrawals] rates have gone down significantly since we started, so we know that at least for the course we are using it in it is working. We are still trying to figure out how our students are doing in subsequent courses. But college algebra is not the highest-failure-rate course at Oregon State anymore."
Oregon State uses a McGraw Hill courseware product called ALEKS. "We chose that because we started with it as our math placement test," Clark explained. "Students can take a math placement test, and then ALEKS has learning modules they can work on to improve their placement. We were noticing it was helpful for students and they were performing well in the courses they were placing into, so we started using it in developmental math courses, and when the APLU grant came around, it was a natural fit."

Choosing the Right Courseware

O'Sullivan noted that some platforms created by publishers have proprietary content, while other digital learning platforms are content-agnostic, and faculty members can use open educational resources or their own content with them. "One thing we found at Mississippi is that most of the products we are using are publisher-based," she added, "because the faculty are choosing the textbook first and then choosing the adaptive software that goes along with the textbook. I am not sure that's the best approach because then the software may not have the functionality they need for their class." She said it might make sense to choose the courseware first and then the textbook.

One of the biggest complaints from students about digital learning platforms, O'Sullivan added, is that the courseware may be attached to a textbook, but the professor is not using it. "They say they feel like they are taking two courses — the lecture part, which the exam is based on, and the digital content that is used as a homework supplement and not well integrated into the course. That can be frustrating for students. It is best when everything aligns exactly and students are applying what they are learning in the courseware directly in class."

Adaptive Learning in the Humanities

When the conversation turned to the application of adaptive learning for the humanities, O'Sullivan noted that she has used it to teach ethics. She has employed a flipped model, so the content is delivered through the adaptive learning platform. Students do readings and are asked questions that assess their understanding. They complete those before class and come ready to discuss concepts and work out ethical dilemmas together in class. She sees it as valuable to have a digital learning platform that can deliver the content and assess how students are understanding the assigned reading for humanities courses in general. "I would have thought before getting involved in adaptive learning that English composition might not apply, but they have applied it beautifully and I see other applications in the humanities where people are using it. I know the inclination is for STEM to use adaptive courseware, but I can't think of a discipline that [it wouldn't be useful for]."

Forgette described the work in University of Mississippi first-year composition classes this way: First, faculty were polled on readiness gaps they've seen in students, and asked what types of things they don't want to cover in the classroom but know students need to learn. "Based on what they told us, Lumen helped us build what we call ‘micro modules' that cover, in very student-friendly ways with interactive activities, basic content and strategies in rhetoric," she said. "Students who are less prepared use them as a way to learn this content and strategies. Students who are well prepared use them as a way to refresh their understanding. If the courseware tells us they understand the strategy, but it is not showing up in their papers, as instructors we try to figure out how we can help them apply that. The courseware allows us to assess whether they have a basic understanding of the concepts, even if they can't apply it in their papers."

Asked about how adaptive learning could be applied to other humanities courses, Forgette suggested that patience is going to be key. "Before we figured out how this could work with composition, we had a lot of failed projects. First, we thought about a very large MOOC model, but it just didn't work well in our discipline. Even though first-year writing seems like it would be very consistently taught across institutions, it really is not. We had to step back and look at how we could use this locally and how it could benefit our students. That is when we got a project that we felt was successful."

O'Sullivan noted that the adaptive courseware can free up instructors to spend time on what they see as most valuable. "In medicine, there is a phrase that you want people practicing at the top of their license. Well, we want people to teach at the top of their training," she said. "We are wasting people if they have to spend an hour in class on comma placement. They can do so much more. Let the courseware do that and let them do what they do best."

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