March 26, 2012
By Mike Romeo
Recent years have seen a shift in the way education is delivered, whether to higher education students, K-12 learners, or corporate employees. Over the past decade, online learning enrollments have increased dramatically, both at the K-12 and postsecondary levels. The growth of online learning has significantly altered the U.S. (and worldwide) education market. For example, in the year 2000, approximately 45,000 K-12 students took a course online; by 2010, this number had risen to approximately 4 million. According to an October 2011 article in The Washington Post:
50 percent of all high school courses will be taken online by 2019—the vast majority of them in blended-learning school environments with teachers, which will fundamentally move learning beyond the four walls and traditional arrangement of today’s all-too-familiar classroom.
According to a November 2011 report by the Sloan Consortium, as of fall 2010, more than 6.1 million postsecondary students were taking at least one course online:
As illustrated above, postsecondary online learning has grown by leaps and bounds over the past five years. In 2006, approximately 3.5 million students were taking at least one course online; that number nearly doubled by 2010, to 6.1 million. While the growth rate in virtual learning among postsecondary students has slowed somewhat in recent years, the most recent figures indicate a still-healthy 10.1 percent annual increase in online enrollments.
According to a 2010 analysis in The Chronicle of Higher Education, online-only college-level enrollments stood at over 2.1 million students in 2009, with significant growth projected by 2014 (to nearly 4 million).
Adaptive Instruction and Adaptive Learning Technologies
Scholars, experts, and policymakers have long noted the importance of adapting instruction to the unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses of individual learners. Adaptation has been highlighted as a “primary requirement” for successful instruction since the 4th century B.C.; even after graded systems were adopted by educators, “the importance of adapting instruction to individual needs was continuously emphasized.” (p.470) At its core, the concept of “adaptive instruction” is not a complex one. As Jung Lee, of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and Ok-Choon Park, of the Institute of Education Sciences, have noted, “In general, instructional approaches and techniques that are geared to meet the needs of individually different students in developing knowledge and skills required to learn a task are called adaptive instruction.” As such, Lee and Park note that any instruction can be adaptive, whether it is delivered by teachers or through a technology-based format, if it accommodates “different student learning needs and abilities.”
Recently, however, technology-based online or computerized adaptive learning has garnered attention from educators, policymakers, and the media. In a paper on adaptive online learning, Dr. Nishikant Sonwalkar sets forth a definition of “adaptive learning systems,” noting that these models are “intelligent systems that are dynamically organized based on the observation of the learning preferences of an individual for the best learning performance.”
In a 2005 Educause bulletin, Dr. Sonwalkar notes that adaptive learning systems can provide several desirable features to faculty and students. Such features include:
A pedagogical framework for supporting flexible instructional variations;
Support to provide instructional pathways that can accommodate multiple learning styles and learning strategies;
The ability to provide intelligent and continuous feedback to students (delivered anytime, anywhere) to answer questions and reduce the total load on faculty;
A system that can continuously monitor educational progress, generate reports, and allow faculty to provide guidance more effectively; and
Integration of interactivity, multimedia, and learning strategies in the context of the learning pedagogy.
As Dr. Sonwalkar points out, the advent of course management systems in higher education provides a necessary first step toward the adoption of more advanced adaptive learning platforms and systems.