The spread of COVID-19 via the SARS-CoV-2 virus led colleges and universities around the world to close on-campus instruction for the safety of students, faculty and staff. This left many instructors, specifically those in the sciences, struggling to find effective methods to present information to students in a manner that both encouraged learning and allowed for assessment of knowledge attainment. Non-traditional colleges and universities, those that offer most or all of a degree to students in the online environment, were poised to transition easily; continuing to use the tools available in the virtual world to both guide students and assess learning. As institutions wrestle with the decision to move courses back to the on-campus setting, this blog implores those in higher education, even science education, to consider adaptive learning as a vital component of curriculum.
Prior to my appointment as Lead Faculty at Colorado Technical University, I taught a variety of science courses in on-campus class and laboratory settings. Both exams and laboratory practica could be cumbersome, both in prep and in grading. While the questions could be mapped back to unit and/or course learning outcomes, this would require input of each student’s response to each question into a data sheet for analysis. Even with online administration of exams, assessment methods were limited and instructors like myself were reliant on continuous creation of lectures, worksheets, activities, and online simulations to present course materials. When it came time to transition to online, students would navigate through a learning management system and open a variety of files, videos, interactive activities, practice sheets, and practice quizzes for one unit in a course. There had to be a better way to incorporate all the things we know drive student inquiry into one area while allowing assessment of their knowledge, right? There was.
Enter adaptive learning technology. Colorado Technical University relies upon Intellipath™ to deliver content to students in the asynchronous classroom in a variety of subjects, including natural sciences, math, engineering, nursing, and health studies. I entered into teaching and managing faculty as a novice in this tool, and now I want to sing its praises to anyone who will listen. Adaptive learning does just as the title suggests. It adapts based on the student’s knowledge, adding questions in areas where they need additional practice and allowing those already determined to have a certain understanding of topics to skip on to new materials. Once these lesson nodes are designed, they can be used over and over again and questions can be delivered in a variety of ways to assess the same outcome. Gone is the need to continuously upload materials as they are all housed within the adaptive learning platform. Instructors have the ability to see how a student is doing not just in terms of their progress through the unit but also their mastery of a specific topic. Students have the ability to earn high marks when they demonstrate competency in the subject on their first attempt but are able to improve their score when they didn’t do as well as they had hoped.
The system rolls instruction, interaction, and formative and summative assessments all in together in one data rich place. Instructors can tailor their outreach and additional instruction to specific students or overall trends within a specific cohort. Those tasked with the assessment of effectiveness portion of curriculum can pull these data to discern what outcomes are being met. In modern higher-ed, what students know is important but how we know they know what they know is also a priority. We have to be able to paint a quantitative picture that our curriculum is effective.
Students are re-evaluating their choices for universities and it is wise of all of us to consider our options for content delivery and knowledge assessment. I think many educators in colleges or universities have attended at least one meeting at this point to discuss the decline in the number of “traditional” college students and some of us may have even been tasked with figuring out what to do about it. More and more students are faced with the dilemma of needing to manage being caregivers, members of the workforce, or other life challenges while also attaining a degree. This is our time to be bold and innovative in the classroom and really personalize a student’s experience. Will there always be “traditional” college classes? Only time will tell. I cannot predict where we will be as educators in a decade but I can say that it will be my goal to evolve to meet the demands of the profession. Science leads us to advances and adaptations so shouldn’t we be advanced and adaptive in science education?