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Design Principles for Adaptive Learning: The 5 Cs You Can’t Skip

Put yourself in the shoes of an instructor who needs to adapt teaching strategies that are personalized to each learner. While an instructor in a classroom can modify teaching strategies according to the knowledge levels of learners, it’s going to be difficult if he/she has to tailor training to match each individual’s needs and pace. But, with adaptive learning entering the eLearning market, this scenario is all set to change.

With a combination of algorithms and analytics, adaptive learning can intelligently adjust content displayed to each employee and cut the time taken for training employees by half. By performing a baseline assessment of each learner’s current knowledge levels, customized content that’s essential to each learner is presented. Sounds exciting? However, if you’re considering implementation, you’ll have to spend a considerable amount of time designing the adaptive learning course.

Dr. Howard Lewis, a certified performance technologist with an experience of over 35 years in instructional design and performance technology shared the secrets of designing effective adaptive learning with us, and this blog is based on the insights provided by him. Let’s find out the design principles involved in adaptive learning.

Design Principles in Adaptive Learning

Here are the design principles you cannot afford to skip while designing adaptive learning:

1. Clarity on Learning Objectives

You need your employees to perform well at the workplace and also sustain good performance. But, if you’re not clear of what you need employees to accomplish by going through the training program, designing adaptive learning is difficult. So to put first things first, be crystal clear about what you need learners to achieve by completing the training program.

Of course, clarity on learning objectives is essential for any training program, but with adaptive learning it can get more complex because each learning objective and the tasks learners need to complete to achieve that learning objective needs to be charted clearly. There’s no room for ambiguity here because if do not have the objectives mapped out clearly, it would mean chaos in the learning journey.

Here’s a simple activity for you to try. Imagine you’re involved in designing an adaptive learning program that trains learners to work on a complex ERP. Which one among these two learning objectives fits in with your training?

By the end of this training program, learners will be able to:

  • Login to the ERP system


  • Explain how to login to the ERP system

I’m sure you guessed right. It’s the first objective because it teaches learners to actually login to the ERP system in real-life, rather than only be able to explain how to login.

So if the learning objectives of your course aren’t framed correctly, you might end up with an instructional strategy that’s way different from what you originally intended. Also, your assessment needs to measure the learning objective. So, if you’re training employees to login to an ERP system, you can’t give an MCQ where learners are tested on their capability to explain how to log in.

Your assessment might need to be simulation-based to test if learners are able to login given a username and password to access the ERP system.

2. Content Curation from Existing Training Resources

At the heart of every adaptive learning system is content. In fact, implementing adaptive learning requires more content than what you’d need normally to design an eLearning or a blended learning program. This is because in an adaptive learning program, the system itself adapts to the learners’ needs in real-time. This would require the inclusion of content that’s simple as well as complex, depending on where each learners’ current knowledge levels lie.

It makes sense to use the existing training resources in your organization. All those PPT decks, videos, infographics, existing eLearning courses and manuals, are all rich sources of learning material that can be utilized in adaptive learning. But using this content as it is may not practically be possible as most often it’s structured in a linear fashion. What can you do in order to be able to leverage this content? The solution lies in chunking!

3. Chunking Content for Prescriptive Learning

It’s difficult to design adaptive learning if content is not chunked. Most of the existing online as well as offline training resources that you have might have follow linear progression. This can cause two hurdles in adaptive learning design and development:

  • Adaptive learning requires content that’s modular, which means you will have to chunk as well as rewrite content and this adds to the project cost and development time.
  • Adaptive learning is designed to let learners skip content that they know and go straight to what they need to know. So this needs linear content to be broken down into smaller, standalone bites.

When you split content into smaller chunks, it’s easier to make learning prescriptive. What we mean here by making learning prescriptive is that the adaptive learning program displays content that’s an exact match with what the learner needs to know.

For example, if you’re teaching learners a 10-step procedure and the adaptive learning system tracks that person A is struggling with Steps 2, 3, and 4 whereas B has problems understanding Steps 7 and 8, and C has no problem, the adaptive learning program uses a combination of analytics and algorithms to display content that’s relevant and required for each learner to move further along the learning path. And all this happens in real-time.

What this means for adaptive learning designers is that they’ll have to segregate content that’s related to each step in the procedure and chunk it appropriately so that the right content is delivered at the right time.

4. Creativity in Instructional Methods and Activities

One of the biggest advantages of adaptive learning is its ability to provide instruction that’s individualized and differentiated. But what can be a challenge in designing adaptive learning is addressing creative redundancies, because although the content might be similar, you’ll need to think of creative instructional methods to present that content and include learning activities that are relevant to a specific piece of content.

An adaptive learning system needs to emulate the task of an instructor by adapting the content according to the learners’ needs.

For e.g., if you’re training learners to work on a specific software and a learner needs more support to get to the desired level of proficiency, the adaptive learning system provides additional support. And to do this, when you’re designing adaptive learning, you need to think of the additional resources or content to incorporate.

In the above scenario you could provide a video that demonstrates how to perform a specific task on the software. Or you could have an infographic that lists the steps to perform a task and the learner could use it as a downloadable resource.

Similarly, learning activities too have to be designed keeping in mind the various levels of knowledge the learner is at.  Think about what needs to be taught, what would be the effective way to teach that content, and then pick the format.

5. Creating Different Learning Experiences for the Same Objective

Learners going through an adaptive learning program may go through different learning paths, but they have to complete the same learning objectives. The adaptive learning system keeps track of learners’ preferences and creates a learner profile. Some learners might prefer to watch a video while others might prefer listening to a podcast or go through an interactive eBook.

The adaptive learning system is designed to offer various learning experiences, without losing sight of the learning objectives. Keep in mind that to achieve this kind of variation in learning experiences, it is essential to enable learning analytics in order to capture data on the choices that learners make.

Summing Up

Boosting employee proficiency and helping them achieve mastery over tasks at the workplace forms the foundation for most corporate training programs. And when you want to take that training a notch higher by providing a learning experience that adapts itself to the unique needs of each learner, adaptive learning would be the way to go.

While adaptive learning can help your employees achieve mastery and boost employee productivity, designing for adaptive learning can be a real challenge. You can’t afford to skip any of these design principles and that also means an additional investment in time, money, and resources.

The question to ask yourself is “Is my organization prepared to invest in adaptive learning?” If yes, you are ready to get started on your journey to implement adaptive learning.

If you have already implemented adaptive learning, do use the Comments section to share the challenges you’ve faced.

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