Using Questions to Drive the Adaptive Learning Engine

Isaac Pitman The Pitman Collection, University of Bath

The very first modern “distance education” course can be traced to Isaac Pitman and his correspondence course in the mid-1840s. He sent his students shorthand texts transcribed onto postcards and received transcriptions back from them to be graded. The feedback element was a crucial innovation of Pitman’s system.

One hundred and seventy years later, modern e-learning has hardly improved on Pitman’s approach—and, in some ways, is much worse. The basic components are unchanged: present the student with information (sometimes lots of information), then evaluate. This approach—direct instruction followed by summative assessment—forms the core of virtually every corporate e-learning training course. Yet other than the score on a simple quiz, the element of feedback has been lost. Worse, the typical summative test does nothing to evaluate understanding or long-term retention; instead, it is focused on rote memorization of a small subset of the content.

The e-learning market is estimated to be worth more than $100 billion[1]. The flaws with e-learning are, however, significant. Learner satisfaction is low, and there is little evidence to suggest that any sustained learning is taking place. Required classes, such as for compliance training, can encourage a “check the box” attitude. People try to click through as fast as they can, or else multitask during the e-learning exercise. This is clearly a waste of everyone’s time and resources, and has a negative impact on business performance.

In an effort to eliminate these flaws, adaptive learning takes a different approach. It starts with carefully written questions and delivers content only when and where there is a need for supplemental teaching. This “questions-first” approach probes the learner’s knowledge and understanding in a nonthreatening way, while creating a higher level of learner engagement. The result is a highly-individualized experience; the learner’s responses, not some pre-set assumptions, determine where the system delivers content to improve comprehension. When mastery is demonstrated, the system moves on to ask more questions to probe another area of understanding. This is not a simple “pre-test.” The questions are part of the learning experience, driving changes to the teaching approach in real-time.

On the face of it, this questions-first adaptive learning approach might seem intimidating to some people, especially those who experience test anxiety. But over many years of working with millions of learners in academic and corporate environments we’ve seen that, with the right questions (what we call “probes” because they are often more advanced than just questions), the opposite occurs. Asking questions in a very nonthreatening way actually drives engagement, as people experience greater connection to the content.

The result is a precise approach that delivers only the content each learner needs and with greater efficiency, which is extremely important for corporate learning. Consider sales reps, customer help desks, and call centers where time spent away from the job and lack of proficiency translate into lost opportunity to drive revenue and build the business. To be impactful, corporate education needs to be both time efficient and highly relevant to the learner. More importantly, by being individualized in the content delivered, adaptive learning makes a difference where it matters most in corporate education: realizing business outcomes.

Organizations across many industries recognize the importance of aligning learning with strategy. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), through its Defense Acquisition University (DAU), seeks to provide a global learning environment to develop qualified professionals to achieve specific DOD goals. DAU delivers training in the classroom and online, with a variety of learning resources available 24/7 to the Defense Acquisition Workforce. As Christopher Hardy of DAU told Chief Learning Officer: “In this business, we cannot afford to be second place. As our workforce is successful, so are the men and women of our Armed Forces. Their success in training and on the job ultimately translates to the safety of nation and the achievement of our national interests.”

For corporate e-learning, not only must the content be highly relevant to organization strategy, but also delivered in a way that maximizes time efficiency and employee training satisfaction, and ultimately leads to improved job performance.

A key consideration when designing highly effective adaptive learning, we believe, is the ability to write very good questions that determine whether the learners have a full understanding of the subject material. This is what drives the learning engine and engages the learner by helping them see where they have achieved mastery and where they would benefit from supplemental teaching. The adaptive engine will dynamically vary the difficulty of questions, based on whether the learner is struggling or performing well; this too engages and encourages the learner.

Rather than every learner going through the exact same content, learners in an adaptive environment are engaged by questions that probe their understanding and determine where focused training can make a measurable difference in their skill building and competency. This personalization has the potential to greatly increase learner engagement and puts them in a learning frame of mind.

  1. http://www.prweb.com/releases/distance_learning/e_learning/prweb9198652.htm