Last reviewed 22 February 2022

Adaptive learning is an emerging trend in workplace learning. Through the practical use of learning technologies, many L&D professionals now believe adaptive learning has finally come of age. In the second of two articles on adaptive learning, Judith Christian-Carter takes a look at how to implement modern adaptable learning in organisations across the board.

Whilst adaptive learning has been studied extensively in primary and secondary education, as well as in various military and medical training contexts, it has not been available for implementation in organisations until recently. In the past, developing an adaptive learning system has required a lot of modelling, development time and resources.

As these systems tend to be domain-specific, in that they are customed to learn one thing, they have not been a good financial investment for many organisations. However, recent innovations in machine learning have reduced the burden considerably of developing these technologies. This means that, today, adaptive learning technology is more likely than not to be a good investment for all types of organisational workplaces.

The adaptive learning litmus test

How does an organisation and its Learning and Development (L&D) function know if it is ready for adaptive learning? The answers to some key questions will serve to indicate whether or an organisation could benefit from increasing the overall efficiency of its learning processes. The key questions are as follows, to which respondents need to select any or all that describes their organisation’s content needs.

  • Does the organisation have a wide range of experience levels (novice, journeyman, expert)?

  • Does the L&D function spend a lot of time designing and building learning content?

  • Does the organisation have many learners in similar positions who need to know the same things?

  • Does the organisation have employees who require a lot of foundational, fact-based knowledge before they undertake any hands-on learning?

For organisations that have a wide range of experience levels, a one-size-fits-all approach to learning provision is unlikely to be a good fit. In which case, tailoring learning to the experience level is a good solution. These organisations may also be experiencing the emerging generational gap between experts and novices, in which case, adaptive learning will help in getting less experienced employees up to speed quickly.

For organisations that have and require a lot of foundational, fact-based knowledge, ie well-defined domains such as mathematics, there will be clear right and wrong answers to questions. Adaptive learning systems work best when there are clear right and wrong answers.

Where L&D functions spend a lot of time designing and building learning content, they will also probably have the resources and content available to invest in adaptive learning. However, moving to an adaptive learning system could also exacerbate the situation of having too few people to put such a system in place.

Where organisations have many learners who need to know the same things, then adaptive learning may not right for them. In such cases it will probably make more sense to develop learning content just once and make it available across the workforce.

Problems addressed by adaptive learning

Adaptive learning can address the following complaints about learning solutions that are often heard in organisations.

  • The organisation does not do a good job of understanding what employees know.

  • The organisation spends too much time on unnecessary training.

  • Providing face-to-face classroom-based learning is difficult as the “instructors” are overworked or overbooked.

  • Employees take the same training over and over again.

All the above can be improved with an astute learning strategy and learning design. By providing content that is tailored to the audience, repetition is avoided, not having enough time is reduced and the dependency on having to use “instructors” is alleviated.

Barriers to adaptive learning

What are the barriers to using adaptive learning in the workforce? The main barrier appears to be a lack of time in which to research, plan and implement adaptive learning. However, this could be a temporary barrier, having arisen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which may well resolve itself when organisations adjust to the “new normal”. The next barrier is that of technology, in that organisations do not have the current technology to support it.

A third barrier that has been identified is a lack of knowledge about content design and strategy in the L&D function. For those organisations in this position then it is clear that L&D professionals require more knowledge and content centred around adaptive learning concepts and best practices.

Business value of adaptive learning

Whilst research shows that adaptive learning technology helps people learn more effectively, quickly and with higher levels of engagement, these benefits need to be off-set against the significant financial investment involved in providing the requisite technology.

As adaptive learning is not something in which organisations should consider dabbling in, a scalable solution is often considered to be a sensible way forward. Answers to the following questions will help to determine the extent to which the solution needs to be scalable.

  • Would all employees benefit from adaptive learning or just some key roles?

  • How much content currently exists and how much would need to be created or reformatted?

  • How much infrastructure investment would need to be made to support adaptive learning?

  • How much time is spent providing face-to-face classroom-based training, ie designing, developing, delivering and coordinating it?

  • How complex are the learning problems that the organisation is trying to solve?

Key tools and components

In order to implement adaptive learning, the following are required key tools and components.

  • An editorial process that supports the content strategy needed to redesign or create new content, such as outlining tools, project collaboration spaces, notes and review tools.

  • An authoring tool that supports the easy generation and organisation of multimedia content.

  • An adaptive content delivery platform, ideally one that can provide a learning experience across both desktop and mobile devices.

  • A secure storage and management solution for learner performance data.

  • A data strategy and tools to evaluate organisational outcomes.

For most organisations considering the implementation of adaptive learning, flexibility is paramount. A flexible approach will allow for a small test rollout where appropriate but also will enable organisations to scale and then achieve a large enterprise-wide deployment when the time is right.

Keeping an eye on adaptive learning

Adaptive learning technology is a strategic investment which needs to make sense to both the organisation and its L&D function. Even if adaptive learning technology is not currently a good fit for an organisation, it is something that the L&D function should keep an eye on.

The recent shifts in workplace environments and expectations has resulted in employees expecting more out of their workplace learning experiences, and L&D professionals seeking to meet that gap by redesigning and editing content, as well as putting new tools and platforms into use.

The premise that providing a personalised learning experience improves workplace performance still remains. However, it is the way in which these experiences are designed, developed and delivered that is changing very quickly, which means that at some point adaptive learning technology will become a good fit for the vast majority of organisations.