Personalised adaptive learning technologies
Personalised adaptive learning technologies have emerged at the forefront of the education technology field. These software systems provide learning activities for pupils. But what sets them apart is their capacity to use machine-learning to target subsequent learning activities, and the rigour of those activities, towards the learning levels of the pupil. Organisations like recent X-PRIZE winner onebillion, have coupled this software with the corresponding hardware in order to create an adaptive, integrated learning platform for pupils.
Let’s contrast this approach with a traditional learning sequence. The night before a lesson, a teacher plans the objectives, procedures and assessments to be used during the class. Ideally, these procedures are designed to meet the needs of all learners. During a lesson, the teacher facilitates the learning activities and assesses pupil comprehension in order to determine the extent to which they have achieved the objective of the lesson. But ultimately, these predetermined activities, even those designed to reach as many learners as possible, fail to respond to the actual performance of an individual pupil in the classroom setting. Imagine one pupil who easily completes the first six problems in a problem set on perimeter, while another pupil struggles to answer the first question of the same problem set. Regardless of their individual ability levels and performances, both pupils will continue on in the same problem set, with Pupil 1 learning very little because the problems are too easy and Pupil 2 learning very little because the problems are too hard.
It’s not hard to see why many school systems in developed contexts are moving towards blended learning approaches, in which pupils spend at least part of their day learning using personalised adaptive learning programmes. These programmes responsively align content rigour to pupil ability levels. They also accommodate for classrooms with a wide range of ability levels. But this approach is not universally accessible. Pupils in developing contexts are often learning in environments with limited internet connectivity, a lack of power sources, and poor security infrastructure to protect the valuable technology. In addition, such technological infrastructure requires a dedicated support team to diagnose software issues, maintain the technology, and replace devices that inevitably break due to regular wear-and-tear or exposure to extreme heat.
Clearly, universal adoption of personalised adaptive technologies is not an immediate reality, especially for pupils in developing countries. Yet this presents a false choice between, on the one hand, tech-enabled personalised learning and, on the other hand, traditional instruction that fails to engage learners of differing ability levels. There is a third option. This alternative relies on thoughtful pupil placement, programme design, and instructional methodology to achieve the outcomes of personalised adaptive technology without hinging on technology access.
Across-grade ability grouping
Across-grade ability grouping (sorting pupils by ability rather than by grade) is a new approach gaining increasing traction. A variation of this approach, called Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), is an programme developed through a collaboration between an Indian NGO, Pratham, and J-PAL-affiliated researchers. Pupils are placed into learning groups according to their learning needs rather than according to their grade levels (which are frequently unrelated to actual ability levels). Instruction in these groups is often targeted towards basic skills rather than curriculum-aligned topics. Pupils are assessed frequently using formative evaluations, rather than relying solely on cumulative assessments. While Pratham and J-PAL continue to be at the forefront of work on and evaluation of this approach, the concept has been adopted by numerous educational operators and NGOs. At Bridge, we have been piloting our own version of across-grade ability grouping.
Reading Club: The voices of teachers and pupils
In Kenya and Liberia, we used baseline assessments to measure pupil literacy levels at participating schools. Pupils were then placed in ‘Reading Clubs’ according to literacy level rather than grade level. In these ‘Reading Clubs’, pupils learned basic literacy skills crucial to accessing curriculum-aligned material (which is taught according to grade level earlier in the school day). The voices of teachers and pupils are particularly valuable in understanding the impact of these programmes on the day-to-day experience in schools.
Overall, teachers in Reading Club schools report more productive interactions with pupils in their classrooms. Because the range of ability levels in a single Reading Club classroom is more narrow, teachers are able to deliver targeted feedback on pupil performance. One teacher noted that Reading Club: “Has improved the way I attend to my pupils.” Another teacher explained that, “it has motivated me to pay attention to learners. Some pupils could not read well, but now since they are at the same level and learning at the right level, they read better.” A third teacher described how, “learning during Reading Club is different from learning at an ordinary class. You work with pupils at the same level and you expect level which gives the opportunity to provide needed support equally for every child across the classroom. Unlike non-reading club class you have pupils at different learning levels and providing support is sometimes difficult.”
Because pupils are grouped according to ability levels, teachers are also able to align their pedagogy and pacing to pupil ability levels. One teacher noted that, “with everyone at almost the same level, it makes it easier for learning to take place. When dealing with pupils at high level your pace is high but when dealing with pupils at lower or medium levels you adjust to the level of the pupils. This makes teaching and learning at Reading Club more interesting.”
Other teachers appreciate how ability-grouping can improve confidence and performance, particularly for struggling pupils. One teacher described how: “Slow learners now learn at their level and are more active in class.” That same teacher noted how the programme, “helps struggling pupils catch up.” Another teacher noted that, “all pupils actively participate in class, unlike before when there was a mix of pupils of all abilities. Not pupils are at the same level and it is much easier to guide them.”
The Reading Club programme also spurred critical reflection among teachers. One teacher noted that: “We didn’t realise that all the pupils weren’t at the same pace. With this opportunity given both teachers and pupils will help in identifying which level a child is and be able to help them develop.”
We also need to understand how pupils themselves experience this programme. Pupils reported an improved ability to access material when it is aligned to their literacy levels. One pupil explained that: “I now find answers from the stories quite easily.” Another pupil noted stronger confidence to participate. They described how, “I get to participate just like my other friends. Before, I did not understand a lot and did not participate as much.” Many pupils also appreciated the social aspects of Reading Club. One pupil said: “Reading Club allows me learn with friends from another class.” Another pupil described how, “we have fun during reading and learning during Reading Club. We exchange classes and make new friends. We sit with new friends in different class and learn to write stories.”
The voices of teachers and pupils in Kenya and Liberia clearly illustrate the power of ability-grouping at the school-level. This low-tech approach provides an avenue to align instruction with ability levels. It provides a third path to schools in developed and developing contexts alike that are looking for an opportunity to provide more targeted instruction to pupils with a wide range of ability levels. Clearly, research and innovation on tech-enabled personalised adaptive learning will move forward and progress in leaps and bounds. But we, as a global educational community, must acknowledge that technology is not a panacea, and that while a critical tool, technology comes with its own inherent limitations, particularly in developing contexts. It is crucial to pursue and invest in research on a parallel track of low-tech, universally accessible interventions such as ability-grouping. These programmes serve to ensure that pupils of all ability levels, including pupils learning in low-tech educational settings, are able to learn and thrive in their own classrooms.
Authored by Tim Sullivan, Instructional Design Director at Bridge International Academies.