Adaptive learning is a buzzword in corporate training these days, after having demonstrated its success and become an accepted tool in K-12 and higher education. However, according to Christina Yu, head of marketing for learning science platforms at McGraw-Hill Education, it’s still an often misunderstood term.

Adaptive learning is learning that’s personalized for each student using technology based on artificial intelligence. More than simply offering a diagnostic test and then asking questions based on results, Yu says, adaptive learning refers to “a course that’s continuously adapting in real time” to learners’ behavior and performance. It’s this function of continuous adjustment that causes Joel English, vice president of the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, to describe adaptive learning as a “shape-shifting” technique.

Benefits of Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning has several benefits for individuals and the organization. For learners, it’s more efficient and engaging, since it provides instant feedback. Good adaptive learning, says Patrick Weir, CEO of Fulcrum Labs, can provide many of the same benefits of a one-on-one tutor, especially when it’s combined with a competency-based approach and strategies like microlearning. That’s because it’s personalized and adapts based on what each individual masters – just like a good tutor does.

Yu says adaptive learning is “inherently mastery-based.” Learners must demonstrate their mastery of skills through formative assessments rather than training attendance or level 1 feedback. It’s content- and industry-agnostic. Adaptive learning also provides the data organizations are looking for at a granular level so training managers, according to Yu, can “find patterns, find out what’s working and what’s not, and, most important, optimize each learner’s path to mastery.” The fact that the data is provided in real time also makes organizations more agile; they can make decisions about training much faster and therefore be more responsive to learners. At the same time, adaptive learning balances “analytical rigor” with the growing “need for greater humanity and human-centeredness” by making learning personalized.

The Aviation Institute of Maintenance worked with Fulcrum Labs to create an adaptive course to prepare its aircraft mechanic students for the Federal Aviation Administration certification exam. English says that over the course of the two-year training program, students often struggle to retain everything they learned at the beginning of the program in order to pass the exam. The new review course is a three-week program that has resulted in a higher rate of exam participation (demonstrating a higher level of learner confidence) and an increase in exam pass rate from 79 percent to 90 percent.

Selecting an Adaptive Learning Platform

English says that for many organizations, developing an adaptive learning course is impossible due to the expense and high development time. “At this point, there simply is not an ‘adaptive course in a box’ option for quality adaptive, competency-sensitive online course content,” he says. For that reason, many organizations partner with vendors to develop adaptive learning programs. However, there are many suppliers out there, and you want to make sure you select one that is a good fit for your organization and your training goals. Here are some tips.

Ask to see examples of courses created on the platform. English says, “Great adaptive courses are beautiful, slick and built with high production factor for auditory learning and game-based programming for the kinesthetic interactivity.” They also “weave instruction with assessment, continually engaging students” with multi-media and multi-modal content.

The platform should be able to “pinpoint the depth and degree [to which] each concept, competency and/or learning objective has been mastered,” says Weir, and “evaluate course efficacy and suggest ways to improve it.” Make sure it also meets your technical requirements, including compatibility, ease of use and stability.

Adaptive learning provides a plethora of data, but Weir cautions that it shouldn’t be overwhelming. “Look for instructor dashboards that keep things simple and relevant, namely: who needs help, where (specific learning objectives) and why.” Make sure the platform can help you measure performance and make data-based suggestions on how to improve it.

Finally, look for a platform that will make it easy to adjust the course as needed. “A well-designed adaptive course, in a great platform, will offer solid value right away,” Weir says, but you’ll need to make adjustments a few times to see its full potential.

Of course, Weir points out, “you’re not just picking technology. You’re also picking a partner.” Ask them questions to see if your goals and philosophies align, and ask customers about their experience: How well was the program implemented? How good are the provider’s collaboration and customer service skills? Are there any hidden fees? How did they measure success?

Improving Performance and Discovering Potential

Ultimately, Yu believes that adaptive learning “is the most exciting learning technology there is. It’s about the learning moment and charging it with more possibility.” By giving learners the opportunity to take individualized paths to mastery and companies the opportunity to make more strategic talent decisions, more quickly, adaptive learning can demonstrate employee and organizational potential and help them achieve it.

Adaptive learning is related to two trends identified in this year’s Training Industry trends report: the mass customization of the learning experience and the use of artificial intelligence. Read more here.