HarvardX rolls out new adaptive learning feature in online course


Online courses at Harvard University are adapting on the fly to students’ needs.

Officials at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, institution announced a new adaptive learning technology that was recently rolled out in a HarvardX online course. The feature offers tailored course material that directly correlates with student performance while the student is taking the class, as well as tailored assessment algorithms.

HarvardX is an independent university initiative that was launched in parallel with edX, the online learning platform that was created by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both HarvardX and edX run massive open online courses. The new feature has never before been used in a HarvardX course, and has only been deployed in a small number of edX courses, according to officials.

The functionality has been incorporated into a class called Super-Earths and Life, which is taught by Dimitar Sasselov, Harvard’s Phillips Professor of Astronomy. Through this class, MOOC experts and university officials hope to gain insight into how they can continue to fine-tune online course design and analyze the technological capacity of the feature.

Peter K. Bol, Harvard’s vice provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL), said the new feature is beneficial to students.

“Adaptive learning programs are very good at speeding up information acquisition and lengthening retention, as well as individualizing learning to help learners see where they have difficulty,” said Bol, who is also the Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

University researchers and technologists worked with edtech company TutorGen, a software company based in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, to create an adaptive learning algorithm for the class content. They used the existing algorithm that the HarvardX course already offered, and built an adaptive learning technology specifically designed to be used within a HarvardX course.

“The idea is to tailor the experience so that students are more likely to get what they need,” said Dustin Tingley, VPAL Research Faculty Director and Harvard Professor of Government. “The broader mission is to make sure that students are really benefitting from the online learning experience.”

Signs of bigger gains

The researchers divided students taking Super-Earths and Life into experimental and control groups. Control group learners received pre-set, non-adaptive problems that varied from easy to hard, while experimental group learners received problems given sequentially, one-by-one, based upon prior performance.

They then studied how adaptive technology effected learner performance, engagement and completion in the online course between the course launch in October 2016 to January 2017.

They found that the experimental group outperformed the control group by achieving a nearly 20 percent higher knowledge gain after completing adaptive tests, compared with the traditional settings in the control group.

Experimental group students also progressed more quickly through the course materials, and they showed more persistence in course assessments, making more attempts on advanced problems than the control group learners.

“There is strong evidence, broadly, in the field that adaptive learning is one particularly exciting way to leverage the possibilities of a digital platform,” said Robert A. Lue, HarvardX faculty director and professor of the Practice of Molecular and Cellular Biology. “Our hope is that adaptive functionality will over time become a feature in a significant percentage of HarvardX classes, and provide powerful new assignment types in the Harvard classroom.”

Even though those in the experimental group moved faster through the course than those in the control group, there were no statistically significant differences in rate of course completion between the two groups.

VPAL Research and HarvardX is continuing to expand adaptive learning functionality in other MOOCs, officials said.

“The adaptive approach works well for [the Super-Earths class] because the class covers a very interesting topic, but also because it involves physics and biology – high level science,” said Sasselov. “Students on an advanced level are able to push further, and the adaptive course is the ultimate way to accomplish that.”

More information about the adaptive learning functionality in Super-Earths and Life is available on the VPAL Research website.

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com and follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.