More than any other time in human history, knowledge is both ubiquitous and accessible. The digital realm of cyberspace contains a vast universe of information comprised of incalculable bits of data. As Siemens (2004) stated, however, “knowledge that resides in a database needs to be connected with the right people in the right context in order to be classified as learning.”

In this age of digital and social networks, knowledge is everywhere. No longer must we buy into the “sage on a stage” notion of learning in which expert faculty pour knowledge into the empty vessels that are students. With the help of technology, we are moving from a teacher-centered paradigm to a learner-centered paradigm; from didactic instruction to collaborative knowledge construction.

Siemens (2012) argued that we must align “teaching and learning with the way in which information is created, negotiated, and shared through digital and social networks.” The challenge for educators is to leverage these networks in such a way that facilitates access to reliable sources of information while supporting knowledge creation and collaboration.

So how do we achieve this? Jose Ferreira, founder and CEO of Knewton, is building a system to do it. Ferreira says that “online education is on the cusp of massive change, and only 100 cognoscenti know about it.” 

Online education is on the cusp of massive change, and only 100 cognoscenti know about it – Jose Ferreira
Ferreira is talking about adaptive learning platforms. Knewton mines data, logging information about students’ behavior and performance (e.g. keystrokes, clickstreams, scores, speed, accuracy). The data is then used to model a student’s performance and preferences so the system can continuously adapt to the learner, offering up content that matches the learner’s preferences and needs. (I recommend watching the video)

Arizona State University used the system for their remedial math courses and found that half of the students completed the course a month early, drop rates reduced from 13% to 6%, and pass rates increased from 66% to 75%. An intuitive dashboard allowed instructors to observe which students were struggling at a concept-by-concept level. The system even uses gaming mechanics to incentivize learning as students can earn badges and points for their achievements. University of Phoenix, the most recognized brand in a rapidly growing market, plans to develop its own adaptive learning platform and not just for one class but for their entire LMS (Learning Genome Project).

Adaptive learning personalizes the learning experience. Drawing from a massive repository of information, an adaptive system can serve up what the student prefers and needs. For example, if the system recognizes that the student prefers videos over articles and struggles with two-tailed but not one-tailed T tests (for those who had statistics), then the system can offer that particular information to the student via the student’s preferred medium. Instead of using one academic resource for every student, the system can take information from various academic resources to create a unique learning pathway for every student based on that particular student’s preferences and needs. This is all driven by a recommendation engine that uses the data mined by the system (kind of like those used by Pandora, Netflix, or Amazon).

Sir Ken Robinson said personalized learning not an evolution, but rather a revolution of education. In an incredibly engaging presentation, he described the way in which education is moving from an industrial/manufacturing model in which students are “batched” from a mechanical process of learning to an agrarian model in which educators feed students’ energy and passion so they can flourish. He bases this philosophy on the notion that “human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.” Based on this principle, he goes on to say that “the health of the learning ecology…depends on effective nurturing of information flow.”

Here are some other organizations developing adaptive learning platforms:
Carnegie Learning



Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from

Siemens, G. (2012). MOOC’s for the win. Retrieved from


Other Articles of Interest: