Advancing College Equity Through Adaptive Learning: Teachable Lessons from the NLU Case

As the new reality of the pandemic continues to sink in, colleges and universities are beginning to rethink some basic assumptions about how they conduct classes and deliver instruction. Particularly, administrators and faculty are reflecting on how they might optimize their technology and resources to best accommodate a virtual learning environment – the new norm in an educational sector whose traditional modus operandi has been shaken to its foundations.

It’s safe to say that college instruction will never be the same after COVID-19. Even after the ebb of the virus and the relaxation of current safety restrictions, schools will still need a fully virtual gameplan, ready to roll out if and when public health conditions require it going forward. This is especially true if, as scientists now predict, we will be dealing with the present pandemic in waves over the coming years.

With students learning in remote format more than ever, faculty and administrators should be considering the many advantages offered by adaptive learning courseware. Adaptive learning is essentially a method that uses data analytics to deliver customized resources and learning activities that meet the unique needs of the individual learner. Adaptive learning technologies (ALT) are the software platforms and other instruments that schools can set up to achieve that goal.

However, like any emerging product with growing demand, there is a rapidly expanding market in providers of ALT. Schools considering ALT should put themselves in a position to make a well-informed decision that maximizes value and optimizes uptake across the institution.

To help guide faculty and administrators in this process, the Undergraduate College at National Louis University has just released a white paper, “A Mission-Centric Guide to Selecting Adaptive Courseware,” that outlines the criteria that faculty and administrators should consider when evaluating different options. 

The paper was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and based on an extensive review of NLU’s deployment of adaptive tools, as well as interviews with NLU faculty and staff. Its key upshot is that an extensive, critical vetting process can lead to significant cost savings and maximize uptake after adoption. Briefly put: a clear view of the institution’s mission can positively guide the search for ALT, and optimize its benefit once in place.

The report details how The Undergraduate College at NLU has utilized adaptive learning tools to meet the unique needs of its diverse student body in its Pathways Program.  The mission of Pathways to focus on closing the bachelor’s degree completion and employment gap among underrepresented first-time college students from the Chicago area.

This mission depends on personalizing learning so that it maximizes students’ opportunities for success. “Pathways aims to be student ready for students who may not all be college ready,” says Aarti Dhupelia, vice president for undergraduate education and dean of the undergraduate college. Similarly, Stephanie Poczos, associate dean of general education and Pathways, says, “We set out knowing we would have students with a range of abilities in class sizes around 30 students. We focused on how we could meet the needs of all those students while running lean to keep the program affordable. Adaptive courseware had the potential to meet the needs of students at every level.”

Likewise, the specific learning model of Pathways guided selection of ALT as well. The Pathways model aims to:

  • serve multiple learning styles in the same classroom;
  • offer students immediate and continuous, adaptive feedback;
  • engage students constantly with a hands-on, applied approach to learning.

This model directly informed the selection and evaluation of adaptive courseware for Pathways, which needed to ensure that whatever choice it made would effectively advance the model.

As one example from that model, Pathways instructors use “signature assignments.” In signature assignments, students apply their learning to complex problems that are personally relevant. “Signature assignments allow us to customize the classroom experience for students,” Poczos says. “We see adaptive courseware as a part of that instructional model. It helps create milestones that lead to signature projects.”

As faculty and administrators continue to think about an uncertain future, and reflect on how the very nature of instruction may be changing in the years ahead, they may find much of value in the data and results presented throughout the rest of the study.

The full case study can be found here.