Friday, May 1, 2015

Adaptation Studies and Adaptive Learning

It’s amazing what we can find while trawling the online archives.  I came across a blog recently entitled Adaptive Learning in ELT, a guide to alternative forms of ELT and language learning written by Philip Kerr, a teacher trainer, lecturer and materials writer ( The blog describes a kind of approach that apparently will “impact on the lives of language teachers very soon,”; if they do not become more aware of what’s happening, they might be out of a job very soon.  It involves a (re-)consideration of educative methods “in the bright light of particular, local contexts.”

Adaptive learning is apparently driven by technology – an “online learning and teaching software that uses an Intelligent Teaching system to adapt online learning to the student’s level of knowledge.”  Software can deliver individualized study programs; following a simple test of different reasoning skills, it can provide a personalized curriculum that can be measured against that of other online learners.  It might involve a process of gamification – in other words, obtaining points for having completed various tastes – but this might prove of limited interest. 

To work out the parameters of adaptive learning, it is necessary to obtain particular data about learners: identity data (who are you?); user interaction data (finding out one’s online habits so as to improve user experience and retention); inferred content data (working out how a piece of content ‘performs’ across different users); system-wide data (grades, disciplinary records, and attendance information); and inferred student data (what does a learner know and how do they respond?)

Once such platforms have been created, textbook companies will be able to produce and modify content according to context; providing greater contact between companies and individual educators.  This should lead to more individualized learning, with a consequent improvement in particular outcomes and testing methods.  Educators and learners can avail themselves of the software to forge new alliances, taking into account their local needs, and hence adapt themselves continually using the software as a basis.

There are snags: language educators might find it difficult to use this software with mixed ability classes; who will pay for the training needed to implement the schemes using the software; how will educators respond to materials that might threaten their future job security; and how will learners respond to adaptive learning, once it becomes something “different”?  Kerr recommends that problems should be identified and prioritized before adaptive learning is presented as “the solution.”  Commercial interests should not be allowed to assume more significance than the needs of individual learners.

Kerr draws a distinction between “theory” and “practice,” and suggests that any educational ideas such as adaptive learning need to be subject to adaptive processes – for example, perceived significance (the idea must answer a question central to the question); philosophical complexity (adaptive learning must mesh with educator beliefs); occupational realism (it must be possible for the idea to be put into immediate use); and transportability (the idea must be rendered accessible in a form that educators can access).  Kerr believes that “big bucks” might win the educational debate; their emphasis on introducing the software might instigate the “creative disruption” that adaptivity promises.  Turkey provides an ideal venue to experiment with this new software; it has “a large and young population,” with a large government-funded project designed to increase English awareness in schools; it has launched one of the biggest EdTech projects in the world; and it has one of the world’s highest proportion of internet users.

Kerr’s discussion is highly intriguing, focusing on a conflict between individuals and institutions that lie at the heart of every adaptive exchange.  Yet there seems to be inherent complacencies at the heart of his arguments that might prove disconcerting for some.  First, he assumes that computer-assisted learning will be the bread-and-butter of all classroom exchanges in the future.  I am no ostrich, hiding my head in the sand from new technological development; but it is a fact that the majority of language learners in the Turkish context have only limited access to technology.  Second, the model of learning he proposes is inherently top-down, despite its emphasis on learner empowerment.  They have to make use of technology provided for them by the textbook and/or computer companies.  The fact that learners have the power both to subvert and challenge strategies determined in advance by the companies.  Third, Kerr’s arguments make no mention of the relationship between adaptation and communication at the verbal and nonverbal levels.  Anyone conversant with the work of Piaget and Bruner understands that adaptation lies at the heart of the ways in which we come to terms with the world and the people within it.  To assume that adaptivity centers solely round the relationship of individual learners to the software they might use is to omit the fundamental basis on which we learn how to adapt.

Perhaps most significantly, Kerr’s blog makes no mention of how “adaptation” might work in other disciplines, especially adaptation studies with its focus on transmediality, transformation and the viewers’, artists’ and writers’ relationship to the process of (re)shaping texts.  The way in which people come to terms with the texts they watch, write or film is much the same as the way in which they learn English; it’s a lot to do with mental processes, drawing on the imagination as well as the creative instinct – the kind of things that no textbook publishers can ever really regulate.

Although couched in the terms of being a “brave new world” of ELT, adaptivity, with its emphasis on top-strategies, contains occasional echoes of the world created in Huxley’s famous novel of the same name in which learners are given online soma so as to restrict rather than promote their creative (and hence subversive) instincts.  Call me antediluvian if you wish, but I’ve come to learn in recent years that no one can predict the way “adaptation studies” as a psychological as well as a textual process will affect people.

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