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Is ‘adaptive learning’ in danger of losing its meaning?

The problem with education buzzwords? They sound good, but don’t say a whole lot.

Turns out, they’re also pretty darn ambiguous. That can be a problem, especially as educators look for solutions to the more specific problems, challenges, or goals they were coined to represent.

Take the word excellence, for example. Everyone knows that excellence is often closely tied to achievement. But its meaning is different depending on the school context in which it’s used. An administrator might use the word excellence to describe overall school performance, where a teacher might use it to describe academic mastery in a particular subject. A parent might use it to describe the quality of classroom education, or a child’s overall academic record. An education technology vendor might use the word in a different context altogether.

Here’s another one: Adaptive learning. Raise your hand if you’ve heard this phrase before? It’s a fan favorite among education technology vendors. Name a classroom learning solution or software you’ve purchased in the previous two years and I’ll bet adaptive learning was featured somewhere in that sales pitch—maybe even printed in bold letters right there on the box.

But there’s a problem: Education experts who’ve studied these products contend many of them aren’t adaptive at all. Which opens the door to a larger, potentially more serious question: Does anyone really know what adaptive learning means—really?

The folks at Ed Surge, in partnership with curriculum giant Pearson, recently teamed up to release a detailed report, Decoding Adaptive. The report examines the steps educators and education technology providers can and should take to keep adaptive learning relevant in the nation’s schools and classrooms.

A common definition
So what is adaptive learning?

Says the Decoding Adaptive report: “We define digital adaptive learning tools as education technologies that can respond to a student’s interactions in real-time by automatically providing the student with individual support.”

The report is the culmination of an in-depth literature review, interviews with educators and vendors, and recent research into current solutions on the market. It found technologies that feature true adaptive learning have the potential to innovate classroom instruction by providing a personal experience that responds to the different ways and speeds at which students learn.

The report classifies adaptive learning solutions in three categories:

  • Adaptive content: Solutions that respond to student inputs with unique hints, facts, or feedback.
  • Adaptive assessments: Classroom measurement that change test questions based on answers provided by students.
  • Adaptive sequence: Solutions that continually collect data and adapt to what a student sees, thereby further personalizing the learning experience based on a sequence of inputs or interactions.

Words have meaning
While the Pearson and Ed Surge report provides a clearer definition of adaptive learning in schools, you don’t need an in-depth analysis to see the challenge that education buzzwords and phrases present in K12 education. Whether a phrase is used so much it loses its meaning, or is so vague it has no meaning, the lesson is the same: Clear communication and language matter—a lot.

In a foreword to the adaptive learning report, Ed Surge columnist Michael B. Horn put it this way, “Having a definition is critical so that educators and technologists can have a common language through which to communicate about adaptive learning and its potential, not simply talking past each other.”

I’d take that sentiment a step further: It’s critical that school communities use common language when defining classroom challenges and innovations. Absent understanding and clearly defined language, school leaders, parents, and others have no frame of reference. What’s worse, they don’t know who—or what—to trust.

What steps do you take to communicate clearly with your school community? Tell us in the comments.

Want a better sense for the words and phrases that resonates with parents and staff? Why guess when you can ask them?