Instructional Designer Continues to Encourage Adaptive Learning Technology Despite Faculty “Hostility”


Todd Kleiboer, Web Editor

Though not widely used among faculty, adaptive learning technology, such as the well-known MyMathLab, is being pushed by experts in the education field and by some faculty here in the university because of its mutual benefits.

“It [adaptive learning technology] is basically about software that adapts to students,” Instructional Designer Dr. Julia Frink said. “When the student is doing the study plan it gives them problems, and as the student is working on one of the problems and struggling, the software will say ‘here’s a tip for you’ or ‘here’s some extra practice for you’. Then the next question might be adjusted to student’s level of mastery.”

Adaptive learning technology is entirely different from the notorious eCollege in that faculty usually use eCollege as a supplemental program to the class such as a depository for readings or notes. Adaptive learning could be viewed as outside tutoring for the student.

“It’s like the student has a private tutor because this is connecting with the student on an individual basis,” Dr. Frink said. “It kind of makes it more personal in that in the classroom, you have to teach to all levels of your students. You can’t really tailor your lecture You have to cover the whole class, but if you can have a student sit down at a computer and do this study plan, the student’s engaging with the content.”

Faculty rarely use this technology because of their hostility toward it or not knowing enough about the product. Their hostility stems from the fear that computers may soon replace them to teach the students, and the low usage propagates the faculty’s unawareness of the product.

“I’m not sure, to be honest, how many faculty here at Texas A&M University-Commerce are using adaptive learning. My guess would be that it’s a very small percentage,” Dr. Frink admitted. “There is still a lot of faculty resistance to technology and concern about technology replacing the professor.”

While applicable to some subjects, adaptive learning technology cannot cover every subject because of its basic feature as a piece of software that only runs on algorithms and certain programmable theories. The professor needs not to worry about being usurped of their position.

“If the professor was trying to use this software for something writing-intensive like essays, you can’t ask a machine to do this,” Dr. Frink explained. “Yes, a little grammar, math problem-solving, certain contexts are fine, but other contexts need that human.”

On the other hand, professors might try to shoehorn this new technology where it does not fit, and this might create trouble for both the professor and their students. Dr. Frink cautioned against this.

“The professor might not know how to use this product and might be using it for the wrong purposes,” she said. “How it’s used could be an advantage or disadvantage, and it goes back to the knowledge that the faculty member has about the product to know which context it would work in the class.”

This shortcoming of the faculty’s knowledge is not because of lack of pressure from outside the university or insufficient funding for the faculty. The Center for Faculty Excellence and Innovation (CFEI) pushes for faculty to use this technology, and there are even grants for faculty.

“It’s been around for the past few years. It’s something that, based on the literature, they’re saying that it would be good if faculty embraced it and learn a little more about it,” Dr. Frink listed. “There have been grants offered, like the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation have offered grants to faculty to explore how they could use adaptive learning technologies in their courses.”

However, while this technology could positively impact a student’s grade in a class, it could take a toll on an already-overstretched part of a student’s life: their wallet and their schedule.

“The cost could be a problem because, for example, for the publisher’s product, the students are going to have to pay a fee, and most of them start at probably $100,” Dr. Frink said. “It also puts more of the responsibility on the students to go sit independently and do this where a lot students might like to be in the classroom to have that whole environment.”

Possible improvements are still being considered by the CFEI, and with the faculty avoiding this adaptive learning technology, those improvements could prove hard to implement and to assess their effectiveness.

“It would be good if more faculty would try it possibly,” Dr. Frink sighed. “I was actually considering applying for one of those grants to try to find some faculty to try it. It would be great if some of that could be tested in some of the larger-scale introductory courses on campus because that might really help the retention rate of those students and the success rate of those students.”