Everyone who drives a car and uses a GPS navigation system has a story to tell. Some stories are funny and some are just frustrating. Recently, in Chandler, AZ, the GPS instructed me to make a left turn through a concrete and grass median strip with trees. No problem: go a couple blocks farther, make a U-turn, backtrack, and make a right turn. More problematic is U.S. Route 50. Route 50 is a venerable cross-country highway running between Sacramento, CA, and Ocean City, MD. Unfortunately, for GPS users, Route 50 happens to run through the heart of the District of Columbia and right along the National Mall as Constitution Avenue. Anyone who has been directed to stay on Route 50 rather than circumnavigate D.C. on the Beltway has found a longer path that a simple U-turn won’t solve.
Defining Terms and Territory
I mention GPS navigation and its perils, large and small, because I believe it is a good analogy to what is going on in the emerging world of adaptive curriculum. Now, as with many educational terms, “adaptive curriculum” can mean many different things and has been used in many different contexts. Here, I am primarily referring to the new digital curricula where most of the decisions about what a student will do next—what video to watch, what lesson to follow, what assessment to take—is determined by an algorithm that underlies the digital content. Based on student responses to the current task, the algorithm can theoretically “recalculate,” making the formative decisions that determine the student’s best route forward through the content.
GPS navigation directions are only as good as the road map that the system refers to in making recommendations. Similarly, the decisions about what content to offer a student next will only be as good as the knowledge structure that underlies the adaptive curriculum. Just as a map shows links between towns and cities, a knowledge structure posits links between concepts and skills determining a set of interconnecting pathways along which content may be learned. The underlying assumption of adaptive curriculum is that there are multiple ways to proceed through any body of content (unit, course or annual curriculum) and that best ways to proceed will vary from student to student. The promise of adaptive curriculum is that each student—based on the data the student generates—will follow an efficient and effective path arriving at the end of a course with strong knowledge of the content.
Considerations for Educators
In reviewing adaptive curriculum or any digital content, educators should carefully look at the underlying knowledge structure and how that knowledge structure was developed. This is true whether that knowledge structure is as simple as a traditional scope and sequence or so complex that it maps multiple relationships between granular concepts and skills.
Another aspect of a GPS navigation system is the critical importance of knowing exactly where the vehicle is and exactly where it is planning to go. Similarly, for an adaptive curriculum to work, the system’s algorithm must have clear idea of where the student is on knowledge structure “map”. In planning a learning path for a student through a body of knowledge, the adaptive curriculum must have an accurate picture of what the student already knows and what the student is ready to learn next. In reviewing adaptive solutions, educators should pay close attention to the way the adaptive curriculum locates students within the knowledge structure and how the system’s algorithm gains additional information to update the location to make recommendations about what comes next. Similarly, educators should closely review the destination. When the students have traveled the learning paths and arrived at the end, what exactly do they know and what exactly are they able to do?
Drivers need to monitor the suggested routes of navigation systems and make corrections before they mistakenly head down a Constitution Avenue. Further, drivers often override the suggestions of a navigation system based on information that the GPS cannot know—they might actually want to drive by the National Mall rather than around the city. Similarly, teachers who want use digital curriculum must constantly monitor its adaptive recommendations and constantly be ready to override those recommendations based on information the system’s algorithm cannot know. Like a navigation system, adaptive curriculum can add much value, but we are a long way from removing the driver or the teacher from the process of moving a vehicle or a student from one place to another.