Buzzwords May Be Stifling Teaching Innovation at Colleges

August 26, 2015

One of the obstacles to bringing "adaptive learning" to college classrooms is that professors, administrators, and even those who make adaptive-learning systems don’t always agree on what that buzzword means.

That was a major theme of a daylong Adaptive Learning Summit held here on Tuesday. Several people interviewed at the summit, held by the education-innovation group National Education Initiative, noted that part of the problem is a proliferation of companies that make big promises based on making their technologies adaptive, yet all use the term slightly differently.

Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, spent a portion of his keynote address delivering a glossary, and a call for clearer language when experimenting with new teaching technologies.

So what is adaptive learning? Mr. Culatta defined it as "using technology to assign human or digital resources to learners based on their unique needs." That means that a computer program adapts how materials are presented to students based on "their responses to questions tasks and experiences," he added.

In an interview after his talk, Mr. Culatta said he spent so much of his talk on a glossary, despite teasing from colleagues that it might bore attendees, because language could be key to the success of this experimental teaching approach.

"In order to take this from an, ‘Oh that’s an interesting idea,’ to something you can actually implement, we have to get more precise with our language," he explained.

Mr. Culatta provided this more complete glossary during his talk:

Competency-based learning: you move when you show you can do.
Adaptive learning: technology assigns educational resources.
Individualized learning: adjusts the pace of instruction.
Differentiated learning: adjusts the instructional approach.
Personalized learning: adjusts pace, approach, and adds student agency.

To get a better sense of the confusion and skepticism about adaptive learning on campuses, The Chronicle surveyed readers online. It’s hardly scientific, but about 100 people responded with their own quick definitions of some key education-technology buzzwords.

How did readers define adaptive learning?

"Like small lizards that adapt to their surroundings by changing color, students change their values and ideologies to imitate the professor."

"Learning through doing, experimentation, or approximation to ‘real life’ scenarios. Not sure."

"This one is fuzzy to me. Technology-based methods? Things like modules that students work through online on their own? Adjusting how one teaches based on these results?"

"The idea is that material is revealed to students at their own pace of learning. This idea has been around a long time and works in some situations, but not in others. Contrary to the ethos that learning works best in a community of learners."

It should be noted that many readers gave a definition similar to Mr. Culatta’s, and that many of the answers amounted to commentary.

David Kuntz, chief research officer of Knewton, a well-funded adaptive-learning provider, said in an interview that the company regularly faces resistance from professors who try the approach. He attributed the reluctance to three reasons: Using technology to determine the pace of, and materials for, instruction is not the way they’ve always done things; it seems like something that could one day replace them; and they’re not sure what their role will be if they are no longer presenting the material.

He said that professors usually come around to the approach after they’ve tried it for a while, and realize that it can mean less time grading homework and more time coaching students through tough problems.

And he said that so far, the company’s results are "encouraging," raising grades about a half a letter grade on average, compared with traditional teaching methods.

Adaptive-learning experiments are often part of projects involving another trendy approach: competency-based education. Not surprisingly, readers had plenty of skepticism about that term as well, as shown from their responses:

"Focusing teaching and learning on concrete skills. See ‘death of a liberal education.’"

"Curiosity, imagination and critical understanding are reduced to rodent responses in an academic Skinner-box."

"Education based on the ability to take tests well, as opposed to demonstrating competency. (Kidding. It's another meaningless catchphrase.)"

"Where the goal is to serve capitalist enterprise and produce workers who are ‘competent’ in ‘skills’ rather than give people models of ways to think. The goal of showing competency never really motivates anybody to do anything difficult/uncomfortable, but it does get them to see that doing the minimum and getting down a formula for the appearance of thinking is enough. And why should they do more if the only point of learning is to get a job that requires rote, repeated tasks and selling things?"

There were, naturally, sincere definitions as well, most often from readers who identified themselves as working for a technology vendor or an education nonprofit. Here’s an example:

"An innovative approach ed-tech companies and higher ed are exploring to provide an alternative to the credit hour. CBE programs allow students to work at their own pace, spending more time when needed or skipping through topics they've already mastered. This can be especially beneficial for nontraditional students who may have already spent time in the work force but need a credential."

And someone on Twitter pointed to ScienceGeek.Net, a website that automatically generates corporate jargon involved in reinventing education.

Mr. Culatta said in an interview that he has seen more willingness lately by professors, administrators, and tech companies to work together to try experiments. But progress on this cultural dispute, he said, "is still way too slow."

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads a team exploring new story formats. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page,; or try him by email at