Personalized vs. Adaptive Learning

Learn the difference between personalized and adaptive learning, and decide what's best for your school.

March 2016, Volume 39, Issue 7

More and more devices are making their way into classrooms, outfitted with the best software available, often with the goal of providing students with a more personalized approach. The plethora of devices and platforms should make differentiation easier for educators to implement. But then you run into an app that advertises an “adaptive” system. What does that mean? Are “personalized” and “adaptive” the same thing?

In a word: No.

Personalized learning is a catchall term, referring to anything that a teacher or software does to differentiate instruction for individual learners. This could apply to curriculum, content, method, and/or pace. The teacher who prescribes a slightly different curriculum for Mason because he is a struggling reader is providing personalized learning. So is the software allowing Mason to make the screens in the program blue because that’s his favorite color.

Teachers inherently know when a student requires extra help or when they need to be challenged, and then strive to provide what that student needs. Therefore, personalized learning is probably happening in your school consistently (although you can always help teachers improve their practice).

The question, then, becomes: What level of personalization do you want out of your learning systems? Is changing the color of the screen enough, or do you want an experience that grows with the learner?

Enter adaptive learning. According to “Learning to Adapt: Understanding the Adaptive Learning Supplier Landscape,” the data-driven process functions by “adjusting to a learner’s interactions and demonstrated performance level and subsequently anticipating what types of content and resources learners’ need at a specific point in time to make progress.”

An adaptive learning system is usually in a constant state of formative assessment in an effort to provide the right “next step” in students’ learning processes. This type of responsiveness is only available through technology, but not every learning product has these capabilities.

Implementing an adaptive learning program takes a lot of consideration. Budget is obviously a concern. So far efficacy studies are promising, but preliminary, due to the relative novelty of these solutions. Finally, some educators simply don’t want to cede that much control to technology.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Principal.

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