Adaptive Learning Software Is Coming To Classrooms, But Does It Work?

Can computers help slow and fast students learn at their own speed while sitting side-by-side?

Adaptive Learning Software Is Coming To Classrooms, But Does It Work?
Illustration: Dinara Yafarova via Shutterstock

Teaching students of varying abilities and backgrounds has long taxed educators. It can be difficult to meet the needs of diverse groups, and, by offering the same lessons to everyone, kids inevitably learn faster and slower, and get lots of attention or not enough.


To correct for this one-size-fits-all approach, some schools have lately turned to “adaptive learning” which is more personalized. For part of class-time, kids use interactive computers to learn at their own pace. The software responds by offering different types of content and varies sequences to suit individual kids. It’s estimated that 20% of K-12 students now use some adaptive technology.

But does it work? That’s the subject of an excellent piece in EdSurge, an education technology website. It finds that there a lot of possible advantages but also a lack of evidence and plenty of unease:

If there’s scant proof that these tools raise test scores, is it worth doing if it makes students more enthusiastic learners, or if it frees up teachers to spend more time teaching to smaller groups? These questions unnerve many, including parents who don’t want their children to get an inferior education as schools work out the kinks in new technology, and school district leaders, who are loath to champion risky projects that could get them in hot water with the school board or on the front page of the local paper.

EdSurge visits one school that embraces adaptive learning, Joseph Weller Elementary School in northern California. Teachers there say the software helps underachievers catch up and helps kids take responsibility for their learning.

While there isn’t definitive proof of a link between adaptive learning and better mastery, [superintendent Cary] Matsuoka says he has no doubt it has helped close the achievement gap for many struggling students. It’s certainly helped with behavior: the number of suspensions at Weller fell from 50 to zero in the year adaptive learning technology was rolled out. Just as gratifying, Matsuoka says, is watching gifted students race ahead, unshackled for the first time in their school careers.

On the other hand, there’s a danger that students will become distracted and that teachers will rely too heavily on the reams of data the programs spit out. Also, teachers have to be prepared to give up a certain amount of control and build a “different sort of trust between teacher and student.”

EdSurge says adaptive learning has the potential to keep kids more engaged and to design curricula more responsibly. It doesn’t come to any fast conclusions about effectiveness. But it’s pleased that the ed-tech industry isn’t as gung-ho about profits and sweeping change as it once was.

Nobody talks about technology replacing teachers anymore, or even about the ability of technology to raise test scores on its own.

“It all boils down to good teachers, good students, good parents and good principals,” says Dr. Steven Ross, senior researcher and professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins. “Without that, some little software project isn’t going to make that much of a difference.”

Read the whole piece here.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.