Recent advances in virtual and augmented reality and in techniques such as gamification are creating excitement in corporate education, yet chief learning officers (CLOs) today still grapple with the same basic problems they’ve faced for more than 30 years: How to train employees and increase their skill levels effectively and efficiently.

Traditional online learning has been driven by cost and convenience, but efficacy of learning outcomes has been largely absent. What’s clearly needed is a better learning solution that satisfies the logistical need by offering courses “anytime, anywhere,” while also addressing the much larger issues of effectiveness and learner engagement.

Rather than rush to “cool yet unproven” solutions, CLOs should consider adaptive learning: a personalized, software-enabled teaching approach that delivers proven outcomes. Research has consistently demonstrated the benefits of adaptive learning, especially in K-12 and post-secondary education, where it is widely deployed. For example, in a study of seven U.S. universities, adaptive learning increased passing and retention rates, as well as instructional efficiency.

Although adaptive learning is already deployed in most universities, and one-third of public school districts are commited to adaptive learning, in the corporate space, it’s still an early adopter technology. Yet, judging by the attendees of the 2016 and 2017 Association for Talent Development (ATD) annual conferences, over the past year and a half there has been a dramatic uptick in awareness and acceptance of adaptive learning in both small and large enterprises. But there still seems to be some confusion about what adaptive learning means and what it’s capable of achieving.

As the marriage of computer science and cognitive research, adaptive learning delivers a personalized, online and tutor-like teaching experience at scale. For corporate learning, it offers tremendous potential to establish effective and time-efficient pathways to mastery that are unique to every individual, while improving business-based outcomes. To showcase this potential, here are six ways adaptive learning can elevate corporate learning. 

  1. Greater Time Efficiency – and Less Time Off the Job

A personalized adaptive approach can cut in half the amount of time it takes the typical learner to achieve mastery, compared to other learning approaches. With one client project, for example, a two-and-a-half-day instructor-led course was converted to a series of adaptive learning modules. Most learners mastered the adaptive material in less than eight hours, and some achieved mastery in as little as four hours.

The reason is the personalized approach, which adapts to each learner. There is no need to reteach what people already know; instead, adaptive learning focuses on where they need to become competent. For workers in fields such as call centers, retail, or nursing, where time off the floor is critical, or for expensive resources like salespeople, improving time efficiency in training is crucial.

  1. Greater Competence Means Better Outcomes

Across every industry, there is a need to improve employee proficiency by identifying and addressing competency gaps. In the best-case scenario, employees are aware of what they don’t know – they are “consciously incompetent.” In the worst-case scenario, which is becoming more common, employees are unaware of the gaps in their understanding: they are “unconsciously incompetent.” Such ignorance can be very costly to the company and the satisfaction of its customers. Addressing conscious and unconscious incompetence is of the greatest importance when learning outcomes have clear consequences, such as driving revenue, improving safety, or addressing customer satisfaction.

“Unconscious incompetence” is the source of many workplace errors and potentially serious ones. The best training course cannot be effective if it is not capable of identifying and remediating unconscious incompetence. Adaptive learning is unique in its ability to both identify and remediate for unconscious incompetence. 

  1. A Question-Based Approach Gathers Learner Data

Adaptive learning takes a question-based approach to learning, probing what the learner already knows and where they have gaps. The result is a large volume of very granular data, which makes it possible to analyze groups’ performance as a whole, in particular areas, or even on specific questions.

Adaptive learning also keeps track of what people learned, so if training needs to be updated, the course can be modified and made available to learners without worrying about material being redundant. Equally important, using a question-based approach helps build confidence along with competence as learners gain mastery and become surer of what they know.

  1. Personalized Learning For a Heterogeneous Group

Learners within any group are never the same. Tenure in position or in the company, as well as the skills, knowledge and experiences a person brings from previous jobs or the outside world, all make each individual unique. Even individual learners are not the same day to day due to mood, health, the morning’s commute, even subtle choices such as drinking tea have been shown to affect learning and memory.

Adaptive learning is ideally suited to heterogeneous audiences – which really means all audiences. Adaptive learning adjusts to novices and experts alike, avoiding the dreaded “one size fits none” of traditional e-learning with its static content. 

  1. Moving Away From “Check the Box” Compliance

In the corporate world, a subset of courses is often required to be taken repeatedly, year after year. Unfortunately, these tend to be dry and uninteresting from a content perspective. Compliance courses are perfect examples, despite them being critical to mitigate material risk to the company. Nonetheless, when people are forced to review dry content to simply “check the box” that they completed the course, very little learning typically happens, which undermines the original purpose of mitigating risk.

“Test-out” strategies allow employees who can prove they know the material to skip the course. But tests are gross approximations of the real world. And what if someone scores, say, 90 percent? Are they forced to take the training, wasting their time as they cover material they already know – while hopefully still being engaged when they come to the material they don’t? Or is 90 percent “good enough?” How much risk is associated with the missing 10 percent?

Because adaptive learning’s question-based approach involves the learner, even dry material becomes more engaging. It also allows people who are relatively proficient, thanks to taking repeated courses multiple times, to skip over what they’ve already mastered and focus only on what they don’t know. By combining the assessment and the learning content into the adaptive engine, duplication is avoided – while remediating unconscious incompetence and the risk associated with it.

  1. Updating Training When Information Changes Frequently

Traditional approaches to training are not well-suited to information that changes rapidly. In face-to-face instruction, the teacher can deliver the most up-to-date material. But what about those who went through the course previously?

Traditional online approaches do not accurately track what people have learned and could not adjust if they did, which makes it difficult to add new material without making learners go through everything again (wasting time and reducing engagement). Adding the new material as an addendum may work for those who have already taken the course, but it can confuse new learners. To avoid such messiness, companies often limit the number of updates, but that delays new information getting out to the employees.

The solution, once again, is adaptive learning. When changes to the course are introduced, the system can differentiate between material a learner has already covered and new areas to be mastered. In fact, two people could take the same course, and the system would behave differently depending on the amount of content each learner was previously exposed to. Adaptive learning also provides the ability to incrementally author content, releasing the highest-priority subjects first and then adding new content to the system.

There are many other benefits to adaptive learning, but in closing, it’s important to note one in particular that is crucial for CLOs: line of sight. CLOs look for a “seat at the table” as an integral member of the executive team. That requires speaking the language of the business and demonstrating business impact. Measurement of training impact is notoriously difficult, and adaptive learning provides a clear advancement in this area. The combination of closely aligning learning objectives to business outcomes, along with granular evidence from the formative assessment process, gives CLOs the capability to effect and measure tangible change in the workforce, becoming a generator of business value.