The Pain Behind Adaptive Learning Development

Why Adaptive Learning development is nearly impossible:

This blog is a follow-up to our blog on the 6 Levels of Adaptive Learning.

Among many other L&D buzzwords such as microlearning, gamification, and personalized learning, the term “adaptive learning” is becoming more and more popular in the industry. According to McGraw Hill, Adaptive Learning is defined as, “giving every learner their own personalized course, made specifically for their strengths, weaknesses, goals, and engagement patterns… adapted in real-time to their activity and adjusted moment by moment to their performance and interest level.”

That sounds pretty great, right? While I personally think there is a ton of value in adaptive learning solutions, the ability to deploy a program that has true value to the learner is extremely difficult to execute.

Since Adaptive Learning development is the subject of many conversations in the L&D Industry, we took it upon ourselves to truly define the term. To parallel the (long and grueling) development of autonomous vehicles, we’ve segmented the evolution of Adaptive Learning into 6 stages.

Levels of adaptive learning

These days I spend quite a bit time on calls, webinars, at sales meetings and conferences watching vendors tout their adaptive learning development capabilities. At first, I admit to being excited about the impact adaptive learning solutions can make. However as I took a step back and started to think from the learner’s point of view, I realized how hard it was to make this dream come true. In fact, most corporations are at a level 0 or 1 on our Adaptive Learning Scale, and the companies touting their abilities will actually only accelerate them to a level 2.

 What the Learner Wants

I truly believe learners crave adaptive learning because in principle it provides a more personalized experience for the individual going through the program. It’s the right content, at the right time, delivered the right way; what more could you want?   My conclusion isn’t rocket science though, as tailored experience, whether it be in learning, taking a vacation, or binging a Netflix reel, is what humans enjoy. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy 1-on-1 coaching experiences where the instructor tailors both the content and the delivery style to the individual’s needs, hence the fascination by many learning professionals and training departments on building the ultimate adaptive/personalized learning experience. Unfortunately, delivering on that is hard, and here’s why.

First – it is not 100% about the technology. Between machine learning, AI, etc.. there are plenty of ways to automate tailored responses to learners. Each of us sees this every day in the world of marketing. How many times have you searched for a product and then seen it on every social site or spot on the web that sells advertising slots via contextual solutions that provide these ads based on your search history?

The challenge is completely about the content and the unpredictability of human nature or as Jeff Goldberg said in Jurassic Park 1, “The Chaos Theory.”

Developing the Right Content

This challenge is not just unique to creating an adaptive or personalized learning experience but becomes amplified when building these solutions. In a normal program, your content (while it needs to be comprehensive) generally doesn’t need to account for all possible scenarios, outcomes, and challenges. Yet when building for adaptive, it most certainly does.

This is because you must predict how each learner will react and engage with your content. You need to build multiple pathways through your content so that as each learner engages, they are delivered just what they need to help them solve their challenge. It is not only time consuming but, in some cases, nearly impossible.  Think about it in terms of Google where it could be easily argued that they are the world’s largest educational institution. They are a manual (users must enter their own search parameters) adaptive search platform that has one objective and one only; to deliver relevant content. Google owns 67.5% of the search queries conducted on the web so it is safe to say that they “own” the market. Google has the world’s content at their disposal and they would still only be considered somewhere around a level 2 or 3 on our Adaptive Learning Scale. I hope that puts the challenge in context.

The Human Factor

Human beings come in all shapes, sizes, and colors which means we all learn differently (whether researchers want to believe it or not). So as designers of truly adaptive solutions we need to predict not only the content they need to overcome their challenge but how each learner “learns” best.

If a learner is a bookworm they are going to want depth and detail to appease their senses before truly learning the information, whereas a learner with Attention Deficit Disorder who will likely disengage rather quickly if they are not entertained or stimulated constantly.

The Big Solution

While I have pointed out the challenges with adaptive learning development and solutions, there are still ways to make it work. I have two recommendations: adaptive learning in bite-sized chunks with the learner in charge, and using analytics to create adaptive solutions.

Bite-Sized Adaptive Learning:

Pick a topic (not 10) and focus in on 2 or 3 potential outcomes (not 20). By limiting the size and scope of the program you will make your content creation challenge easier and enable you to differentiate the remediation styles to fit your learner’s eyes not just yours.

Data-Driven Adaptive Learning:

To truly move from a level 0 or 1 (where most learning programs currently stand) into level 2, data must be collected and used as a springboard for the next course of action. Our platform is actually one of the only learning solutions that provides real-time, in-depth analytics. We are confident in telling our clients that we can bring them closer to Adaptive Learning development and deployment given today’s technological abilities.

What You Can Do Now

Regarding technology, be careful of those touting their solutions as completely adaptive because most vendors may be capable of this but very few accounted for the need to adjust the delivery style to meet the learner’s eye and instead focused on the holistic version of the meaning of adaptive.

In conclusion, adaptive learning development can be very powerful if the designers of the solution make sure to remember that they are not building one for themselves but the vast array of different learning styles that exist and have always existed for human beings.


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Empowering learners Together

We’re excited to announce that we are now a part of the Axonify family. To all of those who have supported the MLevel journey, we thank you!  Here’s to the next chapter and to furthering data-driven learning.