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09 February, 2021

What is Adaptive Learning?

A year into studying from home, we’re beginning to see the benefits of what impact adaptive learning can make. Learn more about its benefits for online courses!

by Katie Broadbent · 11 min read

In the world of education, the term ‘adaptive learning’ has been floating around a lot lately. This past year’s lockdown measures and subsequent school closures have seen billions of students dive into the world of online learning and adjust to a new virtual classroom environment. 

But as we’ve become more accustomed to the idea of studying from home and familiarised ourselves with the technologies, students have, quite rightly, become increasingly concerned over ensuring they have access to the very best online learning possible. Especially those who are engaging with additional online courses outside of school hours to enhance their learning and subject knowledge.

We know that there are a whole range of benefits of online learning. But how do we know which types of online learning can yield the best results? It would be impossible for all online courses to deliver the same quality of learning as others, but what is it that makes an unrivalled online learning experience?

This is where adaptive learning comes into play. 

The Current Problem With Some Online Courses

At the beginning of the national lockdown, when schools were suddenly thrown into the realm of online learning and online course providers saw a surge in demand, pre-recorded material, reading, and self-directed study were important in ensuring students had access to an education.

But now we have spent almost a year in variations of lockdown, is it time for online courses to step up and offer a better quality education that’s tailored to different learning styles?

It's not that all methods of asynchronous online learning are deemed ‘low quality’ or ‘poor.’ In fact, asynchronous learning has a whole range of benefits which can help students of different abilities. From allowing them to complete online courses at their own pace and usually with cheaper costs, asynchronous is a perfectly viable option for many learners.

But when it comes to plunging students who are so used to being in a live classroom with constant support into a virtual online learning environment, they need help to guide them through the ‘new normal’ for teaching.

As great as pre-recorded course materials and self-paced learning have been in maintaining a learning momentum, it falls short in its adaptability. Can every student achieve their best from sitting behind a screen and absorbing the text or video content which sits there in front of them?

Or, do online courses have a responsibility to cater to a whole range of learning styles and abilities? And is it essential for online learning platforms to catch up with adaptive learning if they are to continue to offer the same quality of learning as traditional classroom teaching?

What is Adaptive Learning?

If you type into Google; ‘what is adaptive learning?’ you’ll probably be overwhelmed with lots of complex descriptions which explain adaptive learning as a type of programmed algorithm, designed to help teachers orchestrate a learning style which caters to every student’s learning needs in the class.

Pearson Education, a British-owned education publishing and assessment service to schools, pulled together a report a few years ago which deconstructed the idea of adaptive learning and debunked this illusive buzz-word. 

‘We define adaptive learning tools as education technologies that can respond to a student’s interactions in real-time by automatically providing the student with individual support. … Adaptive learning tools collect specific information about individual students’ behaviors by tracking how they answer questions. The tool then responds to each student by changing the learning experience to better suit that person’s needs, based on their unique and specific behaviors and answers.’ - Pearson, ‘Decoding Adaptive’ Report

As we can draw from their understanding of adaptive learning, it can be used as a physical tool to aid teachers in online courses, automatically collecting data on students’ progress and tweaking it to better support and suit their progress.

Of course, as one of the most established educational centres in the world, Pearson would have the ability to implement such technical AI algorithms to enable tailored teaching to reach the masses. But what about those who can’t rely on technologies? Or prefer to rely on human engagement to assess and adjust their online courses based on a learner’s needs? 

Well, if we want to look at adaptive learning more simply, and perhaps as a psychological aide which teachers can use themselves - without having to rely on complex technologies - we could understand the term much more simply with EdTechnology’s explanation;

 ‘Adaptive learning is personalized learning.’ 

Does it work?

According to, the research stacks up well in support of adaptive learning, particularly for students who attend online courses. They report that ‘one study by Education Growth Advisors (EGA) showed that since forming a partnership with Knewton (an adaptive learning platform provider), pass rates at Arizona State University have gone up by 18 percent and withdrawals from maths courses have reduced by 47 percent.

Meanwhile, when Smart Sparrow implemented tutorials as part of their engineering online courses at the University of New South Wales, drop outs decreased by a staggering 55 percent.

More recently, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have also found similar results, with adaptive learning being seen as effective to ‘address the knowledge gap’ for university students who needed help with attainment.

Ok, so the evidence looks good, but is it possible to implement for all online learning?

We know that recent school closures have meant a surge in the number of online courses being taken. And for some institutions, this has had to mean pumping out bulk course materials at unprecedented speeds. And it’s been great to ensure students still have some access to education. But is it impactful?

E-Learning offers a great debate on the topic:

‘Some market their platform’s unique capability to provide adaptive learning by touting Artificial Intelligence (AI) or similar magic to achieve performance ends. But for whatever reason, most can’t explain to a reasonably intelligent L&D professional how it works. This is because it lies in their "secret sauce" algorithms, which few have mastered, fewer can communicate, and even fewer know how to leverage. 

You might easily conclude that good adaptive learning demands investment in expensive technology, deep technical know-how, few hits and lots of misses, and probably all of the above.

Or that it is a silly pipe dream to even try. Which it isn’t.

Can you really do it with the knowledge and resources you have available?’

We think, yes. 

The foundation of great teaching wasn’t built on algorithms and artificial intelligence. It was built on the expert (the tutor) sharing a passion for their subject with students. Making class time fun and engaging and speaks to students in a way that they understand. That’s what led to the creation of more experts - a tried and trusted way of learning and passing on knowledge. 

That’s why we believe so much in the power of our tutorials, which our one-on-one tutoring is modelled on, and regularly include tutorials as part of our online courses

Our founders - the award-winning short course provider Oxford Summer Courses - have over 10 years’ experience in seeing the positive impact that the Oxford tutorial style of teaching has on a student. That is, where learning from a passionate expert translates into greater understanding and a willingness to learn. 

Here at Melio, our tutors aren’t there to reel off information to students. They want to have meaningful, engaging conversations with students and help them to achieve their best academically. And they’ll adapt their learning, however necessary, to make sure they are.

What adaptive learning means to us

It’s clear that adaptive learning is vital in providing an engaging, enriching, and ultimately purposeful experience for students learning via online courses. That’s why adaptive learning lies at the core of everything we do. 

To us, adaptive learning means learning directly from Oxford, Cambridge and other top academics. 

Right now, the world is changing at unprecedented speeds. New research on vaccinations, viruses, and even global relations are evolving faster than they ever have. And we know the insiders that are at the forefront of cutting-edge research and innovation - our Oxford, Cambridge and other expert tutors who have been selected from some of the world’s leading educational institutions for their expertise. And they want to share it with you.

Don’t know what to expect with your subject’s industry when you get out of bed tomorrow? Want to wow prospective university admissions advisers with your knowledge of the latest medical developments? They can give you an insight. So you can be at the forefront too - putting you in the best position possible for future success.

To us, adaptive learning also means support that is tailored to your learning wants and needs.

This means a syllabus that is curated to you. What interests you. What topics you want to know more about. What aspect of your subject you want to pursue in the future. 

It also means re-framing concepts to make them easier to understand - in a way that makes sense to you. So that you can achieve your best.

Because really, what is the point of attending any online courses if a) you aren’t interested in the subject matter, and b) you don’t even understand the content that’s being taught to you? 

Being at home, it’s far too easy to switch our attention away from what’s on our computer screens and over to… well anything. The dog, our phones, or even gazing out the window. Learning needs to make you feel empowered and motivated if you are ever to stick at it. And it’s our tutors’ job to facilitate an environment where you can excel and challenge yourself to learn more. 

To us, adaptive learning can also mean applying real-life insights into your online courses

Applying online course material into realistic scenarios is hugely effective in helping you to understand the information. Information makes better sense to us when we can mirror it in our real lives, enabling us to apply new skills and knowledge quicker.

That’s why our tutors will always try to apply everything they teach you with context. Have a dream career in mind? Tell them, and they’ll help you to understand exactly how the information you’re learning will be applicable and help you to progress in your career. It’s just one of the steps we take to help your learning go beyond your online course.

To us, adaptive learning also means answering your questions honestly and in real-time.

That means no need to write them down at the next session of your online course, or try to work the answer out yourself. Your time with your tutor is yours, and they are there to help answer any questions you may have about topic matter. 

But adaptive learning also means answering those questions, honestly. As already mentioned, the world is changing at a rapid pace - research, the economy, even the creative arts that we enjoy. Your tutor is there to answer any questions you have about your subject in the real-world context; what career prospects there are; what the industry is like currently; what future jobs may be available to you. 

Finally, adaptive learning means progressing at your own pace.

We don’t want to rush you through topic material if you don’t truly understand it - you won’t be achieving your best. 

Your online tutoring is just you and your tutor. One-on-one. Working at your own pace to help you reach the level you want to reach. No time pressure. No tick box checks. A flexible range of tutoring packages for you to work through topics and progress in your own time. 

Even with our online courses, you will only have four hours of rigid, timetabled webinars to attend. The rest, along with your tutorial, will be at a time that suits you, allowing you to work through material at your own pace, so you can be sure it makes sense to you.

Discover our Online Learning Opportunities

Interested in studying with us this year? To find out more about our online tutorials and short online courses, please contact our admissions team, who will be happy to speak with you directly about the opportunities we have available. 

Or, if you already have all the information you need, you can submit an application to study with us.

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