Is Adaptive Learning the future of Corporate Learning?

The short answer to this question is YES. Before getting into the topic, let’s understand what Adaptive Learning is.

Adaptive Learning (also known as personalized learning) is a form of learning where the platform is designed to understand the user’s requirements, settings, and preferences and presents the required learning accordingly.


This is a 2 part series on understanding adaptive learning and its implications in a corporate setting. The first part primarily focuses on why adaptive learning is important while the second part focuses on how we can build such a platform.


Coming back to the problem at hand — Why will Adaptive Learning work in a corporate setting? Let’s take an example.

Rajesh, Smitha, and Noor work as a part of the same team in a huge software MNC. The team has been assigned a new data analytics project. For the team, this project is very new and they haven’t worked on this type of project before. Their manager — Michael gives them one month to learn about Data Analytics and get themselves up to speed on the new technology.

What happens today?

Rajesh, Smitha, and Noor look out for the company’s learning resources and their LMS to find if there are any courses available and prescribed from someone else. They come to realize that all the resources are scattered into different portals for which they either have a limited access or have to request for access. Rajesh approaches another team who has already worked on this type of project and asks for their help. Though the other team is extremely busy with their project, they do manage to give some resources on a different learning portal which Rajesh doesn’t even know that it exists. Smitha, being the new joinee, goes online and looks for publicly available courses. She is overwhelmed with the results that Google throws up and in a confused state picks up one random course and starts studying from it. Noor, the eldest member of the team, decides that offline learning is the best strategy and purchases 5 new books on the technology and starts reading them.

Their Manager is completely unaware of the status or understanding of their learning. Though he did initially try to push them to use one portal for learning the technology, looking at the different learning habits of the team, he immediately gives up on the approach. He is clueless as to who’s learning what and who is the best in which area of technology. He then randomly assigns different areas to different members of the team and hopes for the best.

The project starts and turns into a complete chaos. After months and months of delay, the team finally manages to finish the project, but in a very bad state.Even after the project completion, Michael is still clueless as to who’s good at what areas and is in a dilemma to accept a new project on this technology.


If you have worked in any company, chances are that you can completely relate to this situation. Now imagine this situation.

The New Way

The company adopts one learning solution which can integrate across all their different learning portals and the publicly available courses. Rajesh, Smitha, and Noor just log into this solution and search for the new technology they are looking for. Rajesh finds recommended learning from the other team and immediately starts his learning from the same solution. Smitha finds the internally recommended publicly available course for this technology and starts off her learning with an assurance from her peers’ ratings and reviews on that course. Noor gets the right books recommended by her peers and gets only one book which does justice to the topic she was looking for.

The team manager, Michael, can be completely updated with the team’s learning and skills that they are good at, all from a single platform using the inbuilt assessments based on the type of learning they have chosen. He can clearly identify what skills the team is clearly cut out for and where they lack. He can then recommend more learning to their team based on the skills they need to improve on.

The project starts off and the team does brilliantly in less than the time anticipated with flawless execution.

Now, doesn’t this sound amazing. This kind of learning never happens inside a company and is a dream for the Learning and Development team. Sounds exciting? There’s more.

Imagine a solution that not only tracks different streams of learning — internal learning resources, publicly available courses, and books but can also customize the learning based on the preferences of the user.

Rajesh starts off with the learning module suggested by the team, but the next module is different depending on the skills he acquired in the first module measured by a simple assessment. He is presented with a new module which strengthens the skills he has learned and focuses on the skills that he hasn’t been doing very well on. Smitha is also presented with a learning module from a prestigious university based on her learning style and skills. Based on her assessment, the new module is given to her from another portal completely suited for her. Since Noor is more traditional in her learning approach, the initial book suggested to Noor can also suggest the exact modules that she can learn from. She can then take an assessment based on the topics she learned and then new topics from another book will be suggested to her, which she can either rent a physical copy and just download it from the company’s e-learning library.


In all these above situations learning happens according to the preference of the users and happens in an uninterrupted fashion. The assessment that the users take is not only very transparent but just focuses on the modules they have learned in their individual modules.

Sounds good?? If you have to imagine a solution like this, even the most experienced LnD professional would say that it is at least a decade away. He might be right in guessing so.

Paradigm Shift in Learning Methodologies? Not Really!

Over the past 25 years, we have seen tremendous growth in various fields. The Internet has dramatically reshaped business, entertainment, and media. But not education. The technology you see in classrooms today (blackboards, desks, pens, books) haven’t changed at all since 80 years. Maybe the blackboards have transformed into whiteboards or projection screens but the underlying structure has been the same.

MOOCs, that were touted in the TED talks and Wired cover stories, were supposed to be that disruptive force which would overcome the accessibility and quality of education are having something than that of their desired effect. We know that only a tiny fraction of a large number of students who signed up for a course in any of these MOOCs actually completed the whole course. It’s highly erroneous to disregard the contribution of MOOCs to the present education scenario but it has definitely unable to reach the hype that was created during their launch. Most thoughtful educators and L&D professionals believe that online lectures via MOOCs are just alternatives to the traditional classroom-based learning.

Looking at this pace of improvement in education, it’s fairly accurate in guessing that the time for our vision could come true is probably more than a decade away.

But that scenario is about to change.

With the latest advances in Machine Learning and Deep Learning, we can truly build a system that works based on individual’s preferences and adapt the learning to better suit them, in just a couple of years.

It’s really tempting for someone who has spent all their lives as educators and L&D professionals to dismiss this idea as another technology fad, that is designed to upset them and disrupt the curriculum based learning that has been continuing since centuries.

Why this change now?

Though there are many reasons, these two reasons stand out as the important ones that make adaptive learning work in a corporate setting.

The first is that content is available everywhere these days. MOOCs, internal company portals, Youtube, TED etc. People do realize that unlike a traditional setting, an individual can learn from any of these mediums.

The second being that adaptive learning can be designed to focus on the core learning methodologies. The second problem can be called as “The Holy Grail” and many of them have gone and built various solutions to reach that. Almost everyone agrees that there has to be a paradigm shift in education. A learning solution that can truly focus on learning of the concepts to understanding how much proficiency the user has attained in each one of them using a real-time testing and also constantly motivates the user to learn more is something that is, in fact, a true “Holy Grail” of learning. The adaptive learning system, if well designed, could solve each and every aspect of this problem.


Adaptive Learning is not completely new to the educational field, though it is relatively new to corporate learning. Companies that used to be traditional book companies like McGraw-Hill, Pearson have invested heavily in this type of learning focusing on school and college level education. McGraw-Hill purchased ALEKS in 2013. (Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces), an adaptive learning platform developed by a team of mathematicians, cognitive scientists and software engineers. They even bought in their new CEO — David Levin, not because he was good at selling textbooks, but because of his experience in running technology companies (Levin worked as the CEO of Symbian Software). Even Pearson introduced an “immersive digital learning tool” called Revel that adapts to the learning of the student and makes learning fun. Their idea is to make the course materials “more compelling than Facebook”.

The results of adaptive learning in primary and college learning is fantastic. According to a study in these situations, students who took the software-based course for the second year, however, improved their scores twice as much between the beginning and end of the year as those who remained in traditional classrooms.

If you have read the whole thing until now, you should have had this question still burning inside your head— “Will adaptive learning really work in a corporate setting?”

The answer to this question too is a resounding yes. There are 3 main reasons that it’s more suited for Corporate Learning.

First.

One of the primary reasons that adaptive learning is lagging in a school level situation is because of the infrastructure. Though most of the schools have access to the internet these days, it’s a ‘far from reality’ situation when it comes to the accessibility of a computer or tablet inside a classroom. This situation is actually quite reversed when you are looking at a corporate learning. Every individual have access to a good internet connection with a personal / work portable computer. The accessibility of these devices, though primitive of a problem is one of the main barriers for this type of learning to work in a primary education scenario.

Second.

In the primary education scenario, the push for more personal computers has met with a resistance. In the context of a traditional classroom, Internet-connected devices are creating more distraction from the learning process rather than aiding it. Studies like the famous 2003 Cornell University, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and OECD reports concludes one single thing — Addition of devices in a primary and higher education classroom situation either worsened the student’s performance or had no effect. But, this distraction from the learning on a personal computer in corporate learning is not new. Learning with a personal device works out perfectly in a corporate scenario since the learner is not new to using the device. He must have already used his computer to learn for a few years either in the company or during school or college. The user has the emotional maturity to keep off from the distractions while learning because of his history of using a personal computer for learning. A survey from the Book Industry Study Group found that 10 percent of college students were taking at least one class through an online platform in 2014. In 2015 that number rose up to 40 percent. By this year it would be easily around 70–80 percent. This implies that a college student has more than 80% chance that he might have used an online learning solution before he joined the company. This probability increases, even more, considering if he has already started learning in the company which is usually online these days.

Third.

Facing the hard truths. Companies want their employees to work efficiently. They would ideally not want to waste any time or money to make their employees learn new things and rather focus on making their employees work for their profits. If there was a magical wand that they could simply use to make all their employees learn what they needed to in the shortest time possible, they would definitely pay millions in getting hold of that device. This implies that employees have to take out time from their busy schedules of meetings, work, travel and what not, to spend on learning a new topic. Most of these times, they look for the shortest and quickest way possible that reduces their time even if it affects the quality of learning. A solution which not only understands the type of learning the employee needs but also integrates the learning as a part of his work, daily commute and meetings, without compromising and even enhancing the learning, will be a boon. An adaptive learning platform which understands and gives right information, right size of learning, at a right time can be that boon.


While some pessimists looking at the technology’s track record with education: a long history of promises and not so great results, consider “Adaptive Learning” as another fad. They argue that this is too soon to tell how effective this might be useful.

On the other hand, optimists take a look at the existing results and conclude that if properly implemented, this type of learning can see high gains. A cautious optimist would look at the current findings understand that we are in the early stages of development with both the technology and the pedagogy that surrounds the adaptive learning. Count Koedinger puts it this way — “I think the potential is super. I like to think of analogies to other places where science and technology have had an impact, like transportation. We went from walking to horse-drawn carriages to Model Ts, and now we have jet planes. So far in educational technology, we’re in the Model T stage.”

Irrespective of both the views, if we can look into the future of learning, 50 years from now, there will surely be a significant portion of history where adaptive learning would be identified a major milestone in our evolution.

Adaptive learning platforms have a probability to be the false step on the path of this future, but the risk of marking a step as wrong is very wrong itself before we have seen where it leads to. The research for adaptive learning has been done quite a while ago and we now see some platforms coming up. One thing remains certain, before applying any solution, it’s highly important to understand the problems. We will look at this in-depth in the next article.