One learner at a time

On a recent visit to a large community college in the South, I heard from faculty members about some of the considerable challenges their students faced balancing work, family life, and their studies. Some had not been well-prepared for college. Not surprisingly, many struggle.

I found the discussion a welcome reminder of how important the personal is in education—and how those of us involved in applying high technology to learning should never lose sight of the individual.

There’s been a great deal of talk the last several years about dramatically expanding access to education through the Internet. Many educators have been excited about reaching vast numbers of learners through massive open online courses, or MOOCs. But it’s worth noting that the first letter of the acronym stands for “massive,” because all too often it seems the emphasis with MOOCs is on signing up as many students at possible, not on actually achieving positive educational outcomes. (Completion rates for MOOCs continue to disappoint).

If we’re serious about improving outcomes, however, we need to focus first on the individual learner—and his or her success. We need to create and perfect learning experiences that are tailored for individuals. The idea is to succeed one learner at a time.

We’ve concentrated on that goal at MindEdge. Our online adaptive learning and diagnostic tools are meant to ensure student success by providing the specific guidance a given learner needs. For example, students can take a diagnostic assessment offered through MindEdge’s writing program and surface those elements or topics (grammar, thesis development, tone of writing, etc.) where improvement is needed, and they are immediately connected to learning resources designed to shore up their skills. We also have found that “pre-tests” are a valuable way to help students “fail forward.” (For more on this, see “The value of pretesting.”)

We’ve taken a similar personalized approach to adaptive learning (AL). Relying on the wisdom of experienced educators, we’ve identified content areas where students struggle and responded with layers of scaffolding—additional explanations, exercises, and drills. Students can opt out of this adaptive learning with a click, but few do. The response to our AL has been very positive. (For more on this, see “Adaptive Learning: Exploring the Iceberg”).

There’s little doubt that the digital revolution can transform the way we learn. Starting from the individual student—and getting that experience right—is the key. If we can do that, then expanding personalized learning to large scale will indeed lead to the much-hoped-for transformation of education generally.

Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, at Babson College, and at Boston University.
Copyright © 2015 Jefferson Flanders

Questions and Answers about Adaptive Learning

MindEdge Learning has introduced adaptive learning in many of its Online College Courses and will be expanding its use in many courses and simulations. We thought it might be helpful to answer some of the basic questions about adaptive learning that we’ve encountered.
What is adaptive learning?
We prefer a simple definition: adaptive learning (AL) is online learning technology that provides personalized and individual attention for students.
It’s learning that anticipates and meets the student’s needs so that she or he learns more thoroughly.
Looking for a more formal definition? Education Growth Advisors sees adaptive learning as “…a sophisticated, data-driven and in some cases, non-linear approach to instruction and remediation, adjusting to a learner’s interactions and demonstrated performance level and subsequently anticipating what types of content and resources learners need at a specific point in time to make progress.”
Why should educators employ adaptive learning?
When properly employed, adaptive learning helps both students and instructors. Students can be guided into exercises and drills that help them achieve mastery of difficult material. They can also access enrichment material and explore topics in greater depth.
For instructors, AL can assist by diagnosing roadblocks for students and allowing teachers to focus on areas of needed improvement.
Time is a limited resource. Adaptive learning holds out the promise of helping students and instructors use their time more effectively. Whether in a blending learning environment (where students spend time in the classroom and online) or in a virtual setting (where all instruction and interaction occurs online), AL can fill those gaps in comprehension that can hold students back.
Does MindEdge Learning have a specific approach to adaptive learning? How is this approach different?
Yes, MindEdge approaches AL from a somewhat different angle from other organizations. We begin with the notion that an online course in an introductory subject (such as an Introduction to Financial Accounting or Composition 1) should contain all the learning content necessary for basic mastery. But we know that may not be enough for some students.
So, in response, we’ve built our AL by focusing on what we call common pain points, those parts of a learning experience where a student experiences difficulty learning. How do we know what these pain points are? We start by asking experienced instructors where they’ve seen students struggle. Then we build AL content to address those difficult concepts or skills.
MindEdge AL relies on the “wisdom of educators” as opposed to the “wisdom of crowds” approach taken by those AL systems that are driven by aggregated data on student performance. We didn’t think guiding students down a learning path established by his or her peers would be as productive.
How do you specifically help students with these pain points?
We’ve worked with learners long enough to know that presenting concepts in different ways can help comprehension. Thus our AL “Extra Help” includes video commentary, slide shows, games, charts, exercises, and annotated problems. This variety of learning elements means that students are encouraged to tackle difficult or challenging material from different perspectives.
There are several layers of “Extra Help” instruction. Each layer addresses the same content in a different way or teaches more fundamental skills that the learner may be missing and that may be contributing to a lack of mastery.
Do students have to use your adaptive learning as they progress through a course?
No. And that’s the idea. If a student is making excellent progress and doesn’t need AL help, then he or she doesn’t have to access it. We do have an “opt-in” feature that allows learners to navigate to AL “Extra Help,” but it’s elective.
Some MindEdge AL offers optional enrichment content for the student who wants to learn more—but, again, this is elective, not mandatory.
What are the initial results for students using MindEdge AL?
We’ve found high levels of usage by students using courses with MindEdge AL, with an overall 70 percent participation rate. (This is based on a statistically-significant sample). Our system allows instructors to monitor student progress through AL content, and only 2 percent of the time do those who engage in the AL content fail to successfully complete the material (and when this occurs, it allows the instructor to offer more targeted assistance to the student).
Where can I learn more?
MindEdge has released “Innovations in Adaptive Learning,” a white paper on the company’s new adaptive learning (AL) program. It can be downloaded by clicking here.
If you are interested in learning more about how you could bring adaptive learning to your school or institution of higher learning, please email Mark Sullivan at:

Copyright © 2013 MindEdge, Inc.