In Depth

Adaptive learning creates more effective training


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The technique is coming into its own for corporate use.

Adaptive learning technology, which produces a personalized training experience, is starting to find its way into the corporate space.

Features of this type of software include artificial intelligence, natural language, analytics and Web-based learning, with the goal of teaching different people the same content in different ways. Proponents claim that individualized teaching helps people retain more knowledge long-term and achieve more mastery over the subject matter compared to more old-fashioned methods including rote memorization.

For example, if an accountant is taking an ethics professional development course at work, he knows what the standard learning objective is: Knowing how to respond if he discovers unethical behavior on his team, explains Angie McAllister, senior vice president of learning analytics and adaptive learning for Pearson Higher Education. The accountant may learn this most effectively by engaging in interactive case studies in an online learning module, but a colleague might master that objective better by interviewing another co-worker or listening to a podcast about ethics reporting in the organization, McAllister says.

Where it could be helpful

Industry observers say the ideal use case for adaptive learning is to bring training to end users on any type of device they have, especially important in today's increasingly geographically dispersed, remote and diverse workforce. As such, chief learning officers (CLOs) are "increasingly eyeing adaptive learning techniques," says Julie Anderson, talent capability lead for Accenture Operations. "If their current end users aren't demanding it, they will."

Masie agrees. Adaptive learning is "a conversation IT and CLOs are having ... the technologies behind adaptive learning are being used by companies to build internal content" mainly for training purposes, he says.

U.S. organizations spent approximately $164.2 billion on employee learning in 2012, according to the Association for Talent Development (ASTD). Of this total, 61% was spent internally. Another 28% was spent on external services, with 11% on tuition reimbursement, ASTD says. And last year, training spending by U.S. organizations rose 12% over 2012 rates, according to the Bersin by Deloitte Corporate Training Factbook.

2012 training dollars spent

Most training dollars are spent internally:

Training dollars spent internally - 61%
External services - 28%
Tuition reimbursement - 12%

Source: Association for Talent Development, December 2013 survey of 475 organizations

Since companies spend a lot of money on training, two questions CLOs need to be asking are how can they get employees more efficiently through learning processes, and how can they get evidence of mastery of those learning outcomes? Adaptive learning systems, McAllister says, do a pretty good job in both areas.

Facilitating diversity

Adaptive learning technology can be used not just for helping people advance their knowledge but also to help people with disabilities simply be able to work. The goal of The Sierra Group, a national consultancy focused on diverse hiring, retention and accommodation practices, is to reverse the high unemployment rate of people with disabilities, says Michael Fiore, co-founder. The unemployment rate for people with a disability was 13% in 2012, higher than that for persons with no disability (almost 8%), according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Sierra Group uses a wide range of technologies, including Braille-based software packages so people can feel a tactile representation of the screen. These applications also help people with speech issues who don't have the ability to access a keyboard or mouse, and those who need assistance with spelling and grammar.

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