When an institution has been designing and delivering online learning in one way for years, introducing new courseware can be a challenge. If ever there was an institution up to that challenge, however, it’s Rio Salado College.
A two-year institution based in Tempe, Arizona, Rio Salado serves more than 54,000 students with online courses. While the school was accredited as a community college in 1979, Rio added distance learning in the 1980s, and, in addition to multiple satellite campuses, it offers a range of online and hybrid learning programs.
Rio Salado’s willingness to experiment with different forms of online education has earned it a reputation as a leader in educational innovation. Many of the school’s latest activities include adaptive learning. In October of 2012, Rio Salado was awarded a $970,000 Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) Initiative Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve degree completion and implement personalized learning.
Rio’s first project under the NGLC grant is a rebuild of its Introduction to Psychology course, using Acrobatiq’s adaptive courseware. The trial Rio Salado is running with its enhanced version of the course has provided three valuable lessons about implementing adaptive technology.
Lesson 1: Test new courses against previous sections
The school already had an online Introduction to Psychology course, delivered through its own RioLearn learning management system. Rather than simply replace the old course, Rio Salado ran a study. Starting in spring of 2016, some sections of Psychology 101 were taught adaptively. Rio measured the outcomes of the students in those courses against those enrolled in RioLearn’s existing Psychology 101 course.
Rio Salado often conducts studies of its own courses. For example, in cases where the college has a master course with several sections, one section is used to test an intervention, while another section functions as a control group, says Wanda Tucker, Rio Salado’s faculty chair for psychology, philosophy, and religious studies.
“It allows us a lot of flexibility to run different research projects, collect data, and see what’s making a difference,” says Tucker.
In the last year, close to 80 students have been through the study and, with each section, Rio Salado has tweaked its adaptive course to improve student outcomes. Tucker says she’d like the Acrobatiq students to test at or above the level of those enrolled in the RioLearn course.
Lesson 2: Learn from your setbacks
While Rio Salado is committed to implementing adaptive learning, the trial is just a year old. Tucker and her team are still discovering what works and what doesn’t.
In the Spring 2017 section, for example, students in the adaptive version of Psych 101 were challenged by Rio’s mandated exams, which are offered on a separate platform.
“We have four mid-course exams that we offer in RioLearn,” says Tucker. “For students to be assessed on the same content in the exact same way, students needed to leave Acrobatiq and go to RioLearn to take the exams. That has really been a challenge for students.”
Not only was switching between platforms an issue, but the Acrobatiq students, who had been assessed using multiple-choice tests on Acrobatiq’s platform, had more trouble on the writing portion of the exams.
To improve those, Tucker and her team are creating new assignments using the rubric-based assignment feature in Acrobatiq’s authoring program. These new, subjective assignments, launching in the fall, will be graded by an instructor rather than by the platform. The exercises will also provide students the sort of writing practice offered in the RioLearn version of the course.
“I think it can be a great benefit to our underprepared students, particularly those who don’t have strong writing skills,” says Tucker.
The subjective assignment is another step toward making the two versions of Psych 101 more comparable. Tucker hopes that when the new version of the course is launched, Rio Salado will have better data on what works for students in adaptive courses.
“We’re still playing with the adaptive platform a little bit,” Tucker says. “I’d like to see where we are in about a year once we work through making the tweaks. I’d like to find ways to help it to be the best platform for students.”
Lesson 3: High-quality courses are worth the effort
Launching an adaptive course, even if it’s an adaptive version of a pre-existing course, requires a different process. For example, the Acrobatiq platform collects data based on assessments, which are tied to skills students must demonstrate to pass a course. In order for the platform to collect the proper information, Rio Salado’s instructional designers wrote assessments for each skill they wanted students to learn.
Tucker advises administrators who are planning to implement adaptive courseware to block off ample time for course development, because designing an adaptive course is not the same as designing a traditional course, in which an educator may ask one question that correlates to one learning objective.
Designing an adaptive course, which tailors learning to a student based on that student’s answers to questions, is necessarily more complex; instructional designers must first identify the skills they are assessing, and then write multiple questions for each of those skills. It is time consuming, but, in the end, worth it.
“For students who are struggling, or who are coming to the academic arena underprepared, adaptive learning can help them with their critical thinking skills,” says Tucker.
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Students in adaptive courses, she says, are able to track their own learning through the dashboard and see that they’re passing or that they get better grades when they practice. That boost of confidence, she says, is huge.
“Some students don’t need that, but that’s not the case for all of our students,” says Tucker. “Many of them are working adults. Time is of the essence for them, but they also have to learn. They’re investing their time in the learning process. The adaptive platform can help them to learn by doing, and practicing.”
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.