In April 2013,Tyton Partners (Education Growth Advisors), commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, released a case for adaptive learning in higher education. The Gates Foundation also commissioned a study from the same group that explored over 70 adaptive learning suppliers, highlighting eight vendors and including many more to watch. As well, the comprehensive study included a framework for institutional decision-making, and a lens for approach, taxonomy and maturity that institutions may find helpful when discussing and considering adaptive learning technologies.

The study provides a distinction between personalized learning and adaptive learning where the latter is described as a sophisticated, data-driven, sometimes non-linear approach to instruction and remediation. Adjustments to instructional material are anticipated and made at a specific point in time to support a learner’s progress through the curriculum. On the other hand, personalized learning is defined as a pedagogical method or process that doesn’t necessarily rely on technology and functions as an umbrella term describing a range of approaches and models, including adaptive learning.

Adaptive learning is further described as facilitator-driven, assessment-driven or a combination of both.

  • Facilitator-driven provides instructors and professors the ability to make granular-level adaptation of the curriculum based on performance profiles and analytics.
  • Assessment-driven can have limited or no facilitator interaction where the integrated technology offers learners near real-time, seamless adjustments to instructional content. With an assessment-driven approach, there is a heavy reliance on the technology’s ability to monitor, track and analyze data to customize the content for the learner.

In David Wiley’s blog from 2013, he points out the risks of adopting adaptive learning technologies without first considering vendor data acquisition. He highlights principles of openness that mitigate the risks: require open source code, ensure adaptive learning service uses open content (OERs), and students own their data.

Another report on adaptive learning by Eduventures Industry Thought Leadership Initiative describes adaptive learning as a game-changing innovation that provides rapid personalization of the learning environment. In an attempt to clarify adaptive learning, a framework is provided that states it is a philosophy, a process, and a technology where a faster personalized and scalable method of instruction is achievable.

The report explains that adaptive learning differs from self-pacing, pedagogic agents, differentiated instruction, face-to-face tutoring and mastery-learning by its extensive use of adaptive technologies that analyze big data to provide profiles, analytics, and seamless adjustments to instructional content.

The Eduventures report also includes a list of high-level priorities or best practices for institutions interested in adopting and maximizing the investment of an adaptive learning model, to include: lead with institutional philosophy and values; focus on challenge-driven innovation; understand the diversity of tools; involve faculty from the beginning; pilot in a controlled environment; and quantify the benefits of adoption.

Fraser Institute released a paper in 2013 that evaluates the educational technology landscape with a focus on adaptive learning technology. A selection of implementations and products are highlighted, as well as, the potential impact on public policy. Of particular interest may be the section referencing McGraw-Hill’s 2013 announcement regarding the release of adaptive learning products for Canada.

The paper addresses two key areas of adaptive learning that require additional research in Canada: quantitative, empirical research about the benefits, and factors for successful implementation and use; and a need to quantify policy barriers such as the role of instructor, cost and data privacy. has created a useful resource for those exploring adaptive learning with a post that includes a brief description of adaptive learning followed by lists of products, news articles, and parent topics such as differentiated learning, individualized learning and personalized learning.

Please let us know if you too have been curious about adaptive learning technologies by contacting Michelle Glubke at

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