Educators from four diverse institutions and organizations discuss what it takes to expand personalized learning programs beyond the pilot or experimentation stage.
How do you take personalized, adaptive learning from a promising pilot experiment to broad adoption?
This weighty question was addressed by a panel of pioneering educators at Realizeit’s recent Executive Summit. The panel, featuring Dr. Tom Cavanagh, Vice Provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF); Dr. Vernon Smith, Provost of American Public University System (APUS); Renee Herzing, President of Herzing University; and Andy Hepburn, Chief Innovation Officer for GPS Education Partners, shared a variety of perspectives on what it means and looks like to lead educational transformation.
“Nobody is doing adaptive or personalization just for the sake of doing it,” said moderator Manoj Kulkarni, CEO of Realizeit. “There is a real problem to be solved, and how that fits into each and every environment becomes really, really critical to making that happen.”
For many of the panelists, defining that problem and creating a sense of urgency around it was the first point of order when expanding their adaptive offerings.
Define a Problem to Solve
Herzing began by taking a broad view. “There’s a great quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower: ‘If you want to solve a problem, make it bigger,’” she said. At Herzing, she and her team have galvanized faculty support by emphasizing what they’re doing for society—namely, preparing adults for career readiness in a world where automation may soon eliminate many jobs. “I have a good panic about that; I think a healthy panic. And I try to communicate that into productive panic. We're on a mission here. It's going to be serious.”
At UCF, Cavanagh explained, his team decided to extend personalized, adaptive learning to its most problematic or critical courses—for example, courses with a high rate of D grades, failures, or withdrawals (DFW), or “gateway courses” that students must pass to continue in their majors. “It's time for us to point this [adaptive] technology, this pedagogical intervention strategy, at some big problems that we have,” he said.
One of the multiple problems APUS has applied adaptive to, said Dr. Smith, is just-in-time remediation and enrichment. “You all do a placement in your classes for your beginning students, for your Math, English and Reading,” he said, noting that often, the insights from such placement tests aren’t leveraged within the class itself. “We don’t want that data to stand on its own. We take and capture the data for those students and then place them into a pathway that's personalized through adaptive learning.”
Prepare for Cultural, Not Just Technological, Transformation
Of course, it isn’t enough to have a problem to solve and a technology platform with which to solve it. Putting a framework in place to smooth the process of cultural and behavioral transformation among faculty helps set the stage.
Institutions already dedicated to educational transformation may find deep support for adaptive expansion. At UCF, says Dr. Cavanagh, “We've created a team… whose only purpose is to help faculty build adaptive and personalized courses. The faculty can act more as subject-matter experts. We can build the instruction for them to the best of our ability and have them review it.”
Yet such embedded structure isn’t a requirement for growth. Hepburn shared an approach that’s worked for his team at GPS Education Partners: “If you want to see [instructors] lean into something and move with it, you've got to make the complex seem simple. You've got to give them the elements that are very tactical so they can see ‘how does this affect me?’” he explained. “Then they can say, ‘I have one set of things that I need to do, and I do that, and I understand how they all fit together, and now we can make this work.’”
Another key, panel members shared, is to have peer-level support and encouragement for adaptive initiatives, not just a mandate from administration. Herzing underscored the importance of leveraging faculty members who are early adopters and enthusiasts for the technology to help support more reluctant colleagues. “Keep that early adopter group really out there being the evangelists for you,” she said. “We know peers leading peers is always better than hearing it top-down.”
Think Ahead to Manage the Wealth of Data
Another opportunity for educators expanding adaptive implementations is to put the foundation in place to manage and make the most of the sheer amount of learning data available.
Start with what’s simple, Herzing recommends. Ease in your team by pulling out the information that’s initially most meaningful to them. For a faculty member, for example: “What is 80% of my class not getting as a concept? Put that on your top list.”
For deeper insights, leverage an internal data expert to find and share the most salient points at the course, program and institutional level. “If you want something to improve, measure it,” said Dr. Cavanagh. “But if you want something to improve exponentially, measure it and report it to someone.”
Consider also whether you can augment your team with a specialist to assist with administration and analysis, as was the case with Hepburn at GPS Partners. “We’re a small non-profit, but we have a quality assurance person to look at not just the analytics that come out of a learning activity, but actually program wide, how are these things fitting together?” he said.
UCF’s adaptive team relies heavily on its institutional research office for help with analytics, but not all institutions have such a resource at hand or can create a new role. Dr. Smith recommends finding someone from among the faculty who can help. “You need to find that data scientist, and you'll have them in your stats department, you'll have them in your math department,” he said.
Share a Compelling Story
To secure administrative buy-in for personalized learning at scale, it’s important for the early adopters to build proof points and share success within their institutions, the panelists noted.
For those just getting started, connecting with and learning from others can help set expectations and inform planning, said Dr. Cavanagh, whose team connected with a large university with previous adaptive experience ahead of their own launch. “One of the things that they learned that we've tried to share with our faculty is it took about three iterations of that course before it was running the way they wanted it to. So, we need to be patient with it.”
Communicating realistic expectations is also important, Herzing said. Moving the needle in the right general direction can be a good place to start in the absence of specific benchmarks to guide goals. “If we can at least improve on some of these areas where we know we're struggling, then we can declare some victory.”
Recognize, too, that the goals of adaptive, personalized learning programs don’t exist in a silo. They’re likely aligned with existing administration initiatives around student success and performance, so don’t be afraid to make the connection. “All of you have a student success initiative,” she said. “Every single one. … So, pair it, glue it, staple [your adaptive, personalized learning programs] to your student success initiative at your institution. Make it mission critical to what you're doing.”
Similarly, Dr. Cavanagh noted, tying adaptive learning initiatives to performance funding metrics is another way to get resources. “There's a reason behind why you're doing it. It has to do with student success, and retention, and all the other things that we're measured on globally. And so, suddenly adaptive learning becomes the president's initiative, not mine that I'm trying to sell. He can view that as a strategy to accomplish his goals and the board’s goals.”
The final recommendation for taking adaptive beyond the pilot phase? Patience. “Push the chips in on adaptive and personalized learning and be willing to give it some time,” Dr. Cavanagh recommends. “Fortunately, we had some early success with our pilots. … But even if we hadn't, I think we would have given it some time, and tried to tweak the dials a little bit. Don’t expect the world to change in one semester.”
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