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Many Teachers Rely on Adaptive Learning Tech. Does It Work?

Adaptive learning tools help teachers do their jobs more efficiently and support student engagement, concludes a recent study.

But the study—conducted by foundry10, a philanthropic education research organization based in Seattle—also found that a lack of training and implementation support and doubts about the reliability of the data provided by the adaptive tools make it challenging for teachers to make the best use of the technology.

The use of adaptive learning technologies has increased in recent years. The tools, powered by artificial intelligence or machine learning, adapt individualized instruction or assessment based on the skill levels of the students using the technology. They come in a variety of formats: adaptive assessments adjust the difficulty of questions a student sees based on their previous answers; adaptive feedback provides personalized support or scaffolding; and adaptive instruction collects data about student knowledge and creates a personalized sequence of learning content.

Research on these tools has mostly focused on how they affect students’ academic outcomes. There has been limited research investigating how the tools can help teachers save time, differentiate instruction, and tackle curriculum and assessment challenges.

To fill that gap, researchers from foundry10 examined the advantages and disadvantages adaptive learning tools create for teaching and learning from the perspective of teachers, teacher-support professionals, and ed-tech product developers, said Riddhi Divanji, the study’s lead author who also leads the organization’s technology, media, and information literacy team.

“Most of the research that’s been done in this space has been by the ed-tech companies that make the tools in the first place,” Divanji said. “We viewed ourselves as a third party who was coming in to see the advantages and challenges.”

With the larger discussions about AI in education, “we shouldn’t forget that there’s already AI-enabled tools that are very pervasive across classrooms in the U.S.,” Divanji said. “People are rightfully paying a lot of attention to the chatbots, but there are already these [adaptive] tools, and I think they should be studied and investigated.”

The study will be formally presented at the 2024 International Society for Technology in Education conference in Denver on June 26.

The researchers conducted interviews with 25 teachers, teacher-support professionals, and ed-tech professionals about their perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of adaptive learning tools.

One of the themes that emerged through the interviews was that adaptive learning tools supported teachers in more efficiently completing learning management tasks, such as planning, grading, analyzing trends in student data, and differentiating instruction. The tools also make it easier for teachers to collect quick insights through diagnostic data or behavior-tracking data.

Adaptive learning tools’ data and teacher grading approaches sometimes at odds

However, teachers and teacher-support professionals mentioned that the data the tools provide don’t always align with teachers’ grading approaches and might not capture the whole picture of student learning, making it difficult to make informed instructional decisions on how to help students, according to the study.

Some teachers also said the amount of data they get from the adaptive tools can be overwhelming. And some teacher-support and ed-tech professionals also noted that teachers have a wide range of data literacy skills, which could add to the challenge of analyzing data adaptive tools provide.

Teachers reported that adaptive learning tools allow students to monitor and track their progress over time, empowering them to become more active participants in their learning, the report found. These tools also provide students with some privacy because they use personalized dashboards where only the student and teacher can see what the student is working on. That helps foster comfort with making mistakes or taking learning risks.

The report found mixed perspectives regarding student engagement, however. Many adaptive tools have gamified features that help students have fun while learning, but those features could also distract students from their learning goals, according to the study.

Participants of the study said it was a challenge to incorporate the tools into their daily instruction.

For instance, teachers said there’s a disconnect between district leaders and ed-tech companies’ expectations for the adaptive tools and teachers’ experiences with them, the report found. Teachers said ed-tech companies and, in turn, district leaders, present adaptive tools as a comprehensive solution for managing instruction and student learning, but teachers said these tools are often not the all-in-one solution they’re marketed to be.

But ed-tech product developers counter that teachers often don’t use the tools enough for students to realize the benefits.

The researchers recommended that teachers validate data from adaptive learning tools with other data sources on students’ learning and help students understand and interpret the tools’ data reports and learning pathways.

For those who support teachers, the researchers recommended providing professional development to strengthen their data literacy and to better understand how to use adaptive tools for instructional decisions.

For ed-tech product developers, the researchers recommended limiting gamification features and ensuring activities and user interfaces are age-appropriate.

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