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What if You Blended Adaptive Learning With MOOCs?

MOOCs and adaptive-learning software are often billed as two of the most potentially game-changing technologies in higher education. The White House, for one, is excited to see what might happen if and when those two technologies meet.

It would seem natural to combine massive-open-online-course platforms, which accommodate thousands of students, with adaptive-learning software, which responds to the needs of individual students. But so far that has not happened.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology this month wrote a letter to President Obama briefing him on MOOCs. In the letter, released on Wednesday, the group told the president that while “the jury is out” on the long-term implications of MOOCs, the scale of the massive courses could yet improve access to higher education while reducing its cost.

If it does, adaptive-learning software may play a role, the advisers suggested.

“The new MOOC technologies should allow teachers to measure student comprehension in real time and adjust the material presented to students to achieve higher levels of competency,” the advisers wrote.

“One possible trajectory for the MOOC technology,” they continued, “would be to reduce the cost of education simply by economizing on the use of teachers, using computerized feedback to support a course rather than online or offline personal guidance by a faculty member or a teaching assistant.”

In fact, adaptive-learning software predates the MOOC movement. Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative has been building and road-testing its interactive-tutoring software for the better part of a decade.

Many of those tests have produced evidence that adaptive-tutoring software can sometimes stand in for face-to-face instruction. A 2011 study involving six public universities tested the initiative’s automated-tutoring software in a scenario similar to the one proposed by the presidential advisers. It found that student learning in a statistics course did not suffer after the universities replaced a portion of classroom time with independent work with the software.

Could adaptive software help personalize the student experience in certain MOOCs?

“Absolutely,” said Michael Feldstein, a partner with the consulting firm MindWires.

Mr. Feldstein used to work for Cengage Learning, building tools aimed at “personalizing” the experience of using the textbook company’s digital content. He sees a “natural marriage” between MOOCs and adaptive software, which could help compensate for the absence of individual hand-holding in a massive course.

Candace Thille, director of the Open Learning Initiative, has criticized MOOCs for eschewing adaptive-teaching techniques. But when Ms. Thille moved this year to Stanford University, it seemed only a matter of time before Stanford’s massive courses got an injection of adaptive software.

But alas, Stanford is not building automated tutors into its MOOCs, said Dawn Zimmaro, a senior researcher of learning assessment and analytics at the university, at a meeting of MOOC researchers this month.

It turns out that creating an adaptive MOOC is more complicated than throwing Stanford’s MOOCs and the Open Learning Initiative into a blender together. Such an undertaking would probably involve a team of designers working closely with a professor, who would have to “cede a certain amount of control over to their team members who handle the adaptive part,” said Mr. Feldstein.

“It’s not likely to happen quickly,” he said, “because not every professor who wants to teach a MOOC is going to have the inclination to take a team approach.”

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