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The Potential of Adaptive Learning

Few things are more frustrating to teachers than trying to individualize instruction for students who bring unique needs and interests to class. But now there's hope in the form of what is known as adaptive learning technologies ("A Is For Adaptive," Time, Jun. 17).

Given a question on a computer, a student selects an answer. In milliseconds, algorithms take into account whether the answer is correct, how long it takes the student to respond, and how the answer compares with the answers of hundreds of thousands of other students. The more data collected, the better the algorithm becomes in determining the next question. As a result, instruction can be differentiated in ways that teachers only used to be able to dream about.

I see great potential here, but at the same time I have some serious reservations. Not all subjects lend themselves to algorithms. Consider essays in English classes. I find it hard to believe that technology can ever replace a teacher. I know that programs already exist that purport to read an essay and score it as well as human beings ("Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously," The New York Times, Apr. 22, 2012). But automated readers can be gamed with a little ingenuity. Facts and ideas don't have to be true as long as they fit into a well-structured, recognizable format. Padding an essay with lots of nonsensical sentences can fool the program. In short, form trumps content.

Perhaps with time, tech wizards will be able to solve this problem. If so, it would be a boon for teachers. But until then, I think small classes populated by students with similar aptitudes and abilities are the best way of maximizing learning. This is hardly a perfect strategy, but it has worked remarkably well when implemented properly.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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