Adaptive Learning Requires Adaptive Textbooks

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Last week I interviewed Vineet Madan, SVP New Ventures at McGraw-Hill Education on a white paper the company had just published. The central theme of this paper is adaptive learning, and its importance for learning and its implementation in the classroom. Although adaptive learning is one of the phrases with the most buzz, it also promises some highly exciting opportunities for better learning experiences in the future.

Individualized Learning

Madan made a great analogy, describing how people get from point A to point B. This essentially means that the starting point and the finish are set, but the way people get there is highly individual and depends on various factors, like time and personal preferences, for instance. One might like to take the panoramic road because he/she has the time and wants to enjoy the scenery. A different person will take the highway to get to point B as quickly as possible.

This made me think about the state of textbooks. Certainly, due to their nature, traditional dead wood textbooks are simply not able to be adaptive, since the content is in print. This means that if a student doesn’t understand a chapter or passage, it becomes largely his/her problem, especially since the school or college made the decision to use one or the other textbook for a particular course. When a student encounters a problem he/she has to figure out how to solve it, discussing it with their peers, asking the teacher or professor etc.

Digital Textbooks Are Not Adaptive

The interesting question is why are digital textbooks still not adaptive? Since their nature is digital, publishers along with the authors of textbooks could set the starting point and the finish for the entire book, even breaking it down to defining the objectives of each individual chapter to get smaller chunks, but have modular content.

We all know that static content is always designed to fit the needs of what we define as the average learner. Working through the content of a textbook, the probability is high that the students who represent this average learner type will digest the content and information given in a way to successfully pass their exam at the end of the term. This approach leaves out any individualization, and I’m seeing the same thing largely in e-textbooks as well. Besides sometimes providing students with interactive graphics and tools to annotate or also highlight passages and share information, the content itself remains static. I don’t think that today’s e-textbooks live up to their full potential, and don’t provide students with the value they could actually offer already now.

What could such a digital and adaptive textbook look like?

I would suggest to still define point A and point B, but leave it up to the individual student how to consume and learn the information that brings them to point B, whether they want to take the time and use the scenic road or want to focus on the important points only by taking the highway.

I don’t see such in-built individualization as a huge challenge. It could be achieved by analyzing user behaviour whilst the student is working through a chapter. For instance, at each crucial point in the textbook, they would get a set of a few questions before they were able to advance. Depending on the answers given, the textbook’s algorithm selects the next module and thus serves the student on an individual basis, letting their arch of learning dictate how to move on with the course material. Such ongoing assessments could even provide teachers and professors with valuable feedback about how their students learn, if a student decided to share his/her information, of course. This could be an opt-in feature, rather than opt out.

That my thoughts on adaptive e-textbooks are not far-fetched, but relatively easy to implement and without a lot of additional cost shows on the Khan Academy’s Knowledge Map. The students start at the same point, then based on their individual answers to the problems presented, they get the next set of questions, which are usually slightly different from their peer’s questions. The objective is to get a positive final result, which means they learn what they should, but the learning path to get there is their very own journey.

I hope that textbook publishers finish wearing down the stones so they can leave the established path to try and bring an individual, adaptive learning experience to digital textbooks.

If anyone is interested in watching the interview with Vineet Madan, you can choose between the video version or the audio only version.

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