For the online learning world


Lessons from K-12 E-Learning: Individualization with Adaptive Content

When it comes deciding what makes an effective e-learning program, there are a lot of voices out there in the corporate world and now in the K-12 world as well. Each of these worlds has different histories and practices in e-learning, but one distinction is clear. There is a difference between building an online training session or course and using a diagnostic/prescriptive software. And yet, do we consider this in the large scheme of instructional design? As these two worlds become more similar, it is now time for dialog and learning from each other. Just what is available in diagnostic/prescriptive software and when is it best utilized?

Adaptive Testing
Adaptive software was never available until adaptive testing was developed. In adaptive testing, statistical analyses are used to rank skills and knowledge based on the average difficulty of a given task for a given population. With a sample set as small as 100 respondents, a psychometrician can estimate these parameters for a given body of knowledge and skills within a specific target population. The population could be kindergarteners or engineers, but it has to be specific. Once the test items have been calibrated, they can be used to evaluate the prior knowledge. This is useful to guide in-person and online instruction if it can be tailored to the individual learner.

Adaptive Content and Engagement
By using adaptive testing, the organization can then create custom content one of two ways. The first way is to have a significant bank of instructional tasks (or “learning objects”). These must be tagged and categorized in a way that makes them available for adaptive learning. For example, Khan Academy, a global leader in mathematics instruction, has a branching pattern based on prior knowledge that can lead the learner through an instructional pathway. Alternatively, they also allow the learner to select content based on individual interest. Such a sophisticated system is not available in many areas, so the instructional designer or teacher may be left to develop training or e-learning experiences manually.

What K-12 Has to Offer

In the case of K-12 software, there are many examples of adaptive learning software that first assess and then automatically assign lessons. Some of these tools have social media baked-in (challenge your classmate!) or gamification elements (earn a new outfit for your avatar!). Having content that is available for the learner at their “Zone of Proximal Development” can be very engaging for learners of all ages because they have the prior knowledge to be successful. Add to that social elements and/or gaming and you have a very effective and engaging combination.

On the other hand, adaptive content can be more like drill-based instruction. Too much repetition without novel experiences can kill engagement. Most instructional software I have seen in the past 5 years has gotten this balance more right than wrong. For example, the free language software Duolingo has all of these elements. It includes instruction based on speaking, listening and writing the language being learned. You can be active as part of a level group, find people to follow and be followed, and even branch out to learn special topics of interest.

When To Individualize?
As diagnostic/prescriptive software becomes available, when should it be chosen over building context-specific e-learning programs? Building such a software is an expensive proposition, but in certain use cases it is incredibly valuable.

Consider these situations:
1. New employee onboarding.
2. The development of Social Emotional or “soft skills”
3. Mastery skill practice.
Now ask yourself: Which tool might be most effective for each of these cases?

Many of us have experienced the type of e-learning for onboarding that assumes the learner knows nothing. This type of training can be insulting to a mid-career professional who knows business processes, discrimination and harassment policies and who has good communication skills. Perhaps an organization could give an adaptive assessment to place a new employee in one of 3-4 different on-boarding experiences. This way, at least some recognition of prior knowledge can be achieved, but there is probably not enough difference to warrant a full adaptive instructional experience.

Soft Skills: Worth Considering

The development of soft skills (collaboration, communication, building culture) is probably not as suited for diagnostic-adaptive assessment and learning simply because a personal relationship with the trainer or teacher is essential to effectively teach these types of skills. No matter how good the avatar, nothing may replace face-to-face instruction with a lot of social interaction along the way. One might argue that there are LMS systems out there that could do this effectively, and that may be true, but my take on it would be that in-person adds so much value that it is worth it. In this case, since individuals will ALWAYS be at different levels, the case for a diagnostic/prescriptive assessment and learning experience is weak. Who wants a social experience that will demonstrate your lack of basic skills? For that reason alone an in-person experience may be best.


As software gets more sophisticated it is tempting for any organization to fragmentize the learning landscape. One software for onboarding, in-house developed e-learning for business practice, perhaps purchased training packages for soft skill development…it can get out of hand quickly.
In both the K-12 world and in business people responsible for training and learning must be strategic in what tools they select as well as that the overall experience is for the learner. Using adaptive software can be boring or comforting. In-person classes can be at the wrong level or highly engaging. By looking at the purpose, the user experience and effectiveness you can have the best of all worlds in learning.

Don Brown
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Don Brown

Education Technologist, Researcher, and Trainer.

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