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Is Adaptive Technology an Ed Tech Prize or Fool's Gold?

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New EdSurge report provides a conceptual look at the promise of adaptive learning and the weaknesses in the education system that keeps it from reaching its potential.


Adaptive technology may be the holy grail of education technology.  It holds the promise of a system that can respond to a student in real time, both with instruction and targeted assessment.  It's key to personalization and moving teaching and learning beyond batch processing. 

But as a new report from EdSurge shows, it can also be fool's gold.  A lot of adaptive technologies don't work well.  Much of the most innovative work is being done by startups that can't promise longevity in the marketplace.  The research evidence on its efficaciousness is weak.  So, too, is the ecosystem of standards, training, and product assessment.  A lot of teachers think it's scary, and it has not been a profitable investment for many firms.

The EdSurge report provides a way through the thicket and maybe a sieve for school and district leaders trying to separate fool's gold from the real stuff.  It provides a basic definition, a look at 22 products, a quiz to match learning problems with available technologies, and a conceptual map (above) that ought to grab the attention of education policy makers and philanthropists. 

Here are my three takeaways from the lessons learned section:

  • Adaptive technology work best when teachers like it and feel that it helps them. 
  • Applications are strongest when it gives students power and choices over their own learning.
  • The fastest way to tell whether an adaptive technology is working is to watch the level of student engagement.

Freelance journalist and former Business Week writer Peter Burrows has produced a compelling introduction to the topic.  It's a good read, and a good think, too.

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