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The Era of Adaptive Education

No one seems quite happy with the current state of education. It’s too rote. Too much just teaching to the test. The system fails both the least and most capable students. Teachers are increasingly stressed. Etc. And we shouldn’t look to technology to solve all of this. I get that. However . . . two recent announcements surely signal the beginning of the end of education as we have known it.

First, there was the announcement of Knewton’s system for adapting digital textbooks and materials to the student based on continuous assessments of progress. Then there was the Apple iBook announcement. I know, I know, there are legitimate concerns about Apple’s “walled garden” approach and potential lock-in to their brand of educational process. Nevertheless, there is no going back. These two announcements, the first by a high profile start-up in conjunction with the top text book company, and the second by the world’s top tech company, coming within just a few months of one another, usher in a new era education—one in which all of the education process will adapt to the specific needs of the student. In other words, the end of Zombie education processes!

Exactly how this will play out among the various competitors and complementors in this space is hard to predict, but the train has certainly left the station. The most basic adaptive approaches will be based on personalizing the instruction in response to explicit behavioral information such as test results. However, even more nuanced approaches are inevitable, with the adaptation and personalization being based on more subtle cues from the student, and/or from peers whom are inferred to be in some way similar to the student. And it seems obvious that very shortly Siri-type natural language-based interactive capabilities will be integrated with these learning platforms.

This will have profound implications for learning, as well as for the teaching profession and its administration. It can be expected that the technology will lead, and the necessary adaptation of formal education policies and processes will tend to lag, but inexpensive, adaptive learning tools are destined to rapidly and dramatically reduce the barriers to high quality education (just as Khan Academy videos have already begun to do). Within five years a personal tutor will be available 24×7, and what we have known as education promises to blur into a global learning layer.