Adaptive Learning: The secret sauce of next generation learning and achievement

Using data-enabled learning to deliver personalization at scale

Adaptive learning is a mindset. It enables us to respond positively to change and supports dynamic growth through iterative adjustment. Harvard Business Review deems adaptivity to be a competitive advantage for success at a time when change is the only constant, and I could not agree more. At DreamBox Learning, one of our core values is Be Adaptive. This value denotes our belief that adaptive learning is the pathway to innovation and renewal, as well as to personal and company growth.

How adaptive learning advances education.

Vanderbilt University researchers described the need for teachers in Adaptive Blended Learning Environments to be reflective practitioners who see their teaching as an evolving, adaptive endeavor, with an emphasis on continuous learning and improvement, enabled by technology. That is why I believe that the technologies we use to advance education should be adaptive, too. These technologies allow us to collect real-time data that provides the insights great teachers use to personalize instruction.

What do effective classrooms look like?

Let me take you there. Imagine a teacher, a great teacher that you had when you were a little boy or girl. What made her great? She likely inspired you, was engaging and patient, and understood how to customize your learning experience to personally fit you and the way you learn. She took advantage of teachable moments: there were no “mistakes”—just opportunities to learn—and there was always praise for a job well done. However, even the best teachers struggle to individualize learning for every student when classrooms are large and every child has their own particular strengths and challenges.

For educators to adapt and meet the needs of every student, they must have access to meaningful, actionable data that dynamically changes as a student learns. Essentially, intelligent adaptive learning is based on software that ‘learns the learner as the learner learns.

Adaptive learning technology can help great teachers be even better.

By incorporating Blended Learning with the in-the-moment data that adaptive learning technology provides, a teacher can divide her class into a rotational model based on thirds. She can then deliver live instruction to a small group with greater impact while the other students are engaged in personalized learning while working at a computer station or on a personal device. Supportive learning technology like this allows students to work at their own pace and path while the output of that work is informing the teacher about how best to support each student. This new kind of partnership between learning guardians and adaptive learning software is powerful because it enables personalization at scale.

How data makes personalization at scale possible.

For educators to adapt and meet the needs of every student, they must have access to meaningful, actionable data that dynamically changes as a student learns. Essentially, intelligent adaptive learning is based on software that “learns the learner as the learner learns.” The software gets to know the learner through use, and leverages what it learns from other students to recommend the next best lesson for each student. And it does this continuously in real time. I know that “data” has become something of a dirty word in education, but this is partly because much of our educational system today relies on summative assessments, which only enable us to look in the rear-view mirror of student performance—when what we need is formative information that will inform educators about how to reach students in the moment as they are learning, struggling, or succeeding. The dynamic personalization I am talking about ensures that each student is provided with what they need, exactly when they need it—all in partnership with their learning guardian: teacher, parent, tutor, or principal.

What teachers think about data.

Teachers understand that data is the key to help them reach their goals. In the new Gates Foundation study, Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work, teachers told researchers that they want data, but it needs to help them in three ways to personalize instruction for their students: to help assess, analyze, and pivot—all in a way that can keep up with the speed of teaching. In other words, teachers need more than more data. They need actionable information that will help them be more effective. They need data that impacts learning at the point of instruction, in real time.

We want students to be inspired by productive struggle and experimentation so they can achieve new understandings about what they are learning. In other words, we want students to be adaptive learners and doers who can fulfill their potential and prevail both in and out of school.

Data facilitates continuous improvement.

This is exactly what data in the form of embedded and ongoing formative assessment delivers. It shows exactly where learning gaps are, how each student learns, and how to inform and pinpoint instruction in-the-moment in a way that is effective and highly personalized. These are the actionable insights educators need to dynamically enhance their instructional practice, and the data administrators need to ensure that students are progressing. And yes, it is an important way to scale personalization and to continuously improve the cycle of teaching and learning. This is where all of us should be headed, and what adaptive technology in the hands of great teachers enables. 

Everyone wins with access and adaptive learning.

We want to do everything we can to create the opportunity for teachers to practice their art in the current environment, and that includes the reality of expanding class sizes with increasing diversity of learning readiness among students. I believe Blended Learning that employs highly adaptive technology is the way forward: it can help optimize educators’ time so that they can reach every student, every day by making learning visible.

While the curriculum in an adaptive-enabled Blended Learning environment must develop competence, it must also cultivate confidence in its students. The goal is to inspire learners to try something they don’t know—to persist through challenge toward mastery. We want students to be inspired by productive struggle and experimentation so they can achieve new understandings about what they are learning. In other words, we want students to be adaptive learners and doers who can fulfill their potential and prevail both in and out of school. This approach cultivates deep and purposeful thinking, and creates a new kind of learning opportunity that all children can benefit from and enjoy.

For parents and guardians, knowing that their child is learning in an environment that generates adaptive capabilities during the learning process means that their child is being equipped in a way that will prepare them for success in an information-driven world that requires mental and emotional agility as never before.

When it comes to companies like the one where I work, we are inspired by the idea of adaptive learning and what it means: being nimble, creative, constantly improving, taking advantage of technology and data, and providing tools that support success for us, for learning guardians, and for students, now and into a brighter future.

For more on adaptive learning and Blended Learning, I encourage you to read From Goals to Gains: The Blended Learning Math Journey, and watch for a new white paper, The New Math Classroom: What You Need to Know to Create a Data-Driven Culture, coming next month.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Throughout her life and career, Jessie Woolley-Wilson has been driven by a singular belief that all children need and deserve high-quality learning opportunities, regardless of who they are or where they live. She believes that by supporting great teaching and learning, everyone wins: kids, families, communities and the world. Jessie has worked in the education technology space for nearly 20 years to support school and district leaders to improve learning and life outcomes for K-12 students.

Jessie joined DreamBox Learning® in 2010 as Chair, President, and CEO. The startup software company had pioneered Intelligent Adaptive Learning™ in 2006 and began partnering with schools soon after Jessie joined. Today, DreamBox serves nearly 3 million K-8 students and approximately 120,000 teachers. The company provided more than 350 million math lessons across the U.S. and Canada in 2017.

Jessie recently secured a $130 million investment in DreamBox from The Rise Fund, a global impact investing fund managed by TPG Growth. Prior to joining DreamBox, Jessie served as president of Blackboard’s K-12 Group and LeapFrog SchoolHouse, the K-12 division of LeapFrog Enterprises. Jessie also served in leadership positions at collegeboard.com, the interactive division of The College Board, and at Kaplan, the leading test preparation company in the U.S.

Jessie supports the broader K12 industry by serving on the boards of several educational organizations including Rosetta Stone, Newsela, the Western Governors University Board of Trustees, and Ursuline Academy. She is also a board member for Boeing Employees Credit Union, Pacific Science Center, and The Bullitt Foundation. She has been a featured speaker at international events including TEDx Rainier, SXSWedu, DENT and GeekWire Summit 2018.

Jessie is a two-time recipient of EdTech Digest’s EdTech Leadership Award for her work in transformative innovation in education and honored her as one of 2018’s Top 100 Influencers in EdTech. Seattle Business Magazine awarded Jessie the 2015 Executive Excellence Award in the CEO of the Year category and Forbes placed her on its “Impact 15” list for being a disruptor in education. The Puget Sound Business Journal honored Jessie as a “Woman of Influence” and 425 Magazine named her as one of eight “Unstoppable Eastside Women” for having a clear focus on the greater good. Additionally, The New York Times has profiled Jessie and her leadership style in their Corner Office column.

Jessie holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from the University of Virginia. She is also a 2007 Henry Crown Fellow and moderator for the Aspen Institute.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson