Weigh an Online Course That Uses Adaptive Learning

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If you’ve ever been frustrated at a professor for moving too slow on topics you’re already knowledgeable about or for spending too little time on unfamiliar subjects, you aren’t alone.

One challenge for me as a professor when teaching introductory classes is assessing what students already know and what they don’t, and then presenting course material in a way that is simultaneously helpful and rigorous. An online course that uses adaptive learning technology may be a great fit, especially for older students with previous work experience. But these classes also have limitations.

Adaptive courses, which are gaining popularity and offered mainly at larger online universities, individually adjust each learner’s experience in real time based on the student’s progress. For example, a three- to five-minute lecture might explain how to solve a mathematical equation. This lecture is followed by a quiz that presents the student with one problem at a time. A computer program assesses how the student answers each question, and then, based on whether they answered correctly, determines the next question.

If the student, for instance, makes a multiplication error, the next question may be a basic multiplication problem. If the student gets that incorrect, the program may then offer a minilecture reviewing multiplication before returning to the problem.

If the student easily solves each equation, the problems may become increasingly complex until either the student makes an error and is then given a tutorial to review it, or the student completes all of the required problems and can move on to the next lesson.

Here are benefits and drawbacks to consider before taking an online course that uses adaptive learning.


• Learning is personalized. This allows students to move quickly through concepts they already know and get help with those they don’t.
• Course content is available on demand. There’s no need to wait for the semester to start. It’s up to you when to begin.
• There are no deadlines. Unlike typical online courses with weekly assignments, students control the class’s pace.
• For students who need to complete remedial classes, which often don’t satisfy graduation requirements, taking an adaptive course the summer prior to starting the required coursework can speed up time to graduation and ultimately save money.


• There is no professor to interact with. While some programs have a live help chat feature, you likely won’t get the same staff member helping you each time. A professor who knows and cares about you and your learning is impossible to replace.
• There is no class cohort. Students miss out on interacting with classmates through discussion boards and group assignments that focus on real-world workplace scenarios.
• There are no deadlines. This is also a drawback because many students thrive with deadlines that pace and structure their learning.
• This type of learning doesn’t work for all subjects. So far, adaptive courses are mostly used in remedial classes where the order of lesson topics is clear.

The takeaway: While this learning method enables students to focus directly on their personalized needs, they miss out on the benefits of a structured environment and interaction with a professor and classmates.