Learning to Adapt #1

– reflections on the Gates’ grantee gathering on Adaptive Learning – Seattle June 2014

Fresh off the trip to the right hand coast of the United States, brought to you courtesy of the sleep-precluding, screaming child in seat 10A, here are some reflections on the “adaptive learning providers and implementers” session hosted in Seattle June 25-27th by the Gates foundation. In a wonderfully choreographed event, open discussion was held, not into whether “adaptive learning is the golden bullet” or “How many students we have saved so far” rather along the lines of “What are we seeing? / What are the issues? and What are the next steps we might take?”
The collegiality between (supposedly) rabid, competing vendors was constructive – there is the feeling that we have moved beyond a zero-sum game and that given the massive challenges, there is no one-size-fits all solution. Being in Seattle-n-all (close to friends at BGI) I am reminded of Robert Socolow’s 2004 “wedges” that he, apparently, revisited in 2011. His work suggested that it will only be possible to avoid climate change / global warming if people combine solutions; look for more efficiency, employ renewable power sources, ban Hummers – that kind of thing.
My first meta-conclusion is that while we are lumping pretty much anything under the “Adaptive” banner, there are a variety of approaches. It appears that no two vendors are approaching this challenge in exactly the same way. There are providers whose platforms provide mnemonic cues to prompt student retention of information, virtual lab / simulation providers, personalization tools, micro-adaptive and macro-adaptive systems, elements of gamification and just plain rich content. None are without value; none will in isolation solve all issues in higher ed., online education.
It may even be counter-productive to over-define. Irrespective of how it gets there (with adaptive, without), what might be helpful would be a solid matrix or rubric that can assess course intrinsic motivation or stickiness. An engagement matrix could measure how likely a course, in and of itself, is to keep student attention. Cognitive science can provide a lot of the guidance and grounding for this. Is the text appropriately ‘chunked?’ do graphics or multimedia support the text or distract from it? And is immediate, corrective feedback being provided for the students to guide and encourage them?
The realm of gamification has the best language to frame this metric. While he will hate me for saying this, my friend Dr. Dick Clark’s work, and that of his peers, compadres and acolytes has a substantial Venn (diagram) overlap with the language of Karl Kapp, Mihalyi Cszikscentmihayi and even Jesse Schell who all talk about engagement and “hooks” to keep ‘subjects’ (gamers, athletes, employees, and (why not) students) – fixated and encouraged to keep going, keep failing, persevering to reach the next level, or to nudge ahead of your friend on the leaderboard – not one solution, one size. Implement, measure, try, tweak. Be flexible but gather data on what evidence tells us.
We might have to think about re-naming this work, given how confused and polarized people are by the term and the concept of “gamification.” Like saying “Voldemort” aloud, “Beetlejuice” three times or channeling Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name,” “Gamification” both inflates the balloon and lets the air out of the room at the same time. We need a new term; so here is a matrix that indicates parameters by which one can measure a course’s potential degree of engagement or stickiness. Insert your own Likert scale across the X-axis, here are my Y’s for engaging (gamified?) content. The course presents with:

1. (Simple) rules for student participation.
2. Clear goals.
3. Appropriate level of challenge – one requires concentration.
4. Peer engagement (cooperation or competition or both)
5. Immediate, corrective feedback.
6. A narrative of some sort – can be prescribed by instructor or developed by the students (collectively or individually)
7. An aesthetic theme – can be retro, can be fantasy, or can be personal to each student.
8. Reduced fear of failure – encouragement to “have a go” and learn as you go.
9. A sense of user control (“my choices”)
10. The game is intrinsically woven into the learning (not bolted on artificially)

These criteria are pulled from commonalities presented in the work of Karl Kapp, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Roger Callois and others in this field. Adaptive learning certainly helps with a number of these elements; depending on the platform, they can raise a score on (1), (2), (3), (5), maybe (7), definitely (8) and (9). This is the power of AL – it accentuates elements that make courses engaging or sticky, reducing my list of ten to a more achievable list of 3-4 remaining challenges that we can perhaps ask AL providers to add, or we can add on ourselves.

Analysis of what works in engaging people with game environments suggests that well-implemented adaptive learning courses can move us toward a goal of increased student engagement (with course materials) that evidence indicates will enhance their learning leading to positive outcomes (retention, completion).

Conversation developed at the Gates’ session that surfaced another major issue that I believe we are all AVOIDING. In my Part 2 reflection I will discuss an issue that is absolutely pivotal to online success as a learning medium. More to follow after I catch up on sleep deprivation. Be warned.