Just as ‘gaming engines’ revolutionized game making, adaptive learning engines are about to revolutionize education

headshotBe prepared to be amazed…very amazed. A quantum leap in the way online learning materials are organized and presented to students is happening as you read this.

It will change forever the way that learning occurs…and it is becoming easier for teachers to implement.

Personalized learning made easy

Adaptive learning/personalized learning is the future. The days of presenting the same material to all students at the same time, in the same sequence and in the same way will be seen as an ancient and ineffective concept in a few years.

The problem to date has been the difficulty creating individual learning paths.

However, that is changing rapidly. In some ways, this replicates the development of the computer game industry.

(Next page: How education mirrors the evolution of the computer game industry)

Stage 1 – the “handmade” stage

Thirty years ago, each computer game was created individually “by hand.” Programmers would build every component of a game from scratch. Each game had to be built again for each type of computer. A game designed for an Atari computer had to be rebuilt for an Apple computer.

In education in the past, each school had to develop and find resources for the online component of their courses. This was often done by individual teachers, and the materials were often placed in an online repository for access by students. In the early days, these materials were on a shared network drive. This then evolved into a shared online area, such as a file repository or a web page. However, each teacher or organization had to build their own web pages and the navigational links between them.

Stage 2 – a more systematic approach

In the 1980s “gaming engines” started to appear. These were programs such as Gamemaker, Pinball Construction Set and Adventure Construction Set. These provided core components of a game and the “intelligence” behind the game. Thus, a user could focus on the design, implementation and marketing of a game rather than the “nuts and bolts” – the time consuming computer coding.

In education, the equivalent is the development of Online Learning Environments (such as Learning Management Systems) that take care of many aspects of delivering learning materials in an online environment. These environments provide structure and navigation to online courses, and provide a range of other useful tools such as quizzes, chat and discussion areas, “dropboxes” for students to submit files (assignments), etc.

This stage also opened access to a wealth of online resources from commercial and free providers. Teachers no longer had to make most of the resources for their courses. YouTube alone has become a wonderful resource for educators (and there are many, many more sources of resources).

For many educators this is their current location.

Personalization at this stage takes time and effort. Many online learning environments allow personalization through features such as the easy creation of quizzes and other assessment/feedback activities, conditional release, creation of groups of students who share common levels of understanding, multiple paths for learning resources, etc.

For example, all students might study a small part of a topic and then take a quiz. Those who score above a “pass” grade (60 percent?) could continue to the next learning resource; those who score less than 60 percent could be diverted to some alternative learning materials that provide the information in an alternative format.

If the teacher is particularly keen (and has a lot of time), feedback and navigation to an alternative learning resource could be provided for each question that was answered incorrectly.

This is obviously a time consuming process, and is not the ideal solution…yet this is where many people currently find themselves.

Stage 3 – Adaptive engines

In the late 1990s some game manufacturers started to build “game engines.” These provided all of the key programming components of the game – the way the characters and objects interact, the “physics” of the world, and so on.

Game designers could create a “world” that characters could wander through at will, and could then devote most of their effort to plot, characters, artistic features of their “world,” etc. The underlying “magic” was done by the game engine. The days of having lots of programmers and few artists and storytellers had passed. The amount of time needed to create a game reduced considerably.

Finally, the storytelling was the focus rather than the computer coding.

Education is about to discover this “magic” phase. Just as “gaming engines” revolutionized game making, adaptive learning engines are about to revolutionize education.

Adaptive learning engines will do the hard work, such as

  • discovering what students know and don’t know
  • providing paths to learning resources that are needed by a students at a particular time, and guiding him/her to those resources
  • suggesting alternative learning resources when the initial ones provided in the course need supplementing
  • evaluating the effectiveness of learning resources and moving students to the more effective ones while moving them away from less effective ones.

Teachers will have to compile the appropriate resources, but the system will individualize the learning pathways.

Just as gamers now take for granted that they can wander anywhere and interact with any object in a gaming world, students will take for granted that they can access many paths and many objects in a way that suits their individual needs…and the time when this can happen is getting much closer.

Stage 4 – Walled gardens Vs Open systems

Walled gardens

Adaptive learning is already available for some disciplines. The areas that are almost universal, with a common core of knowledge, and that are similar around the world have a number of providers of web based resources for personalized learning…and the number is growing. (Mathematics e.g. Dreambox, Science and basic Literacy e.g. SuccessMaker).

Some text book providers, particularly in higher education, provide adaptive learning capabilities for courses that use their text books.

However, these are self-contained systems. They usually do not share data with others easily through open standards such as LTI. Thus, an organization with a heavy online presence through its own Online Learning Environment (such as a LMS) has difficulty integrating the data from multiple systems, and has difficulty integrating its own learning materials.

Open systems

Schools typically have a number of courses that fall outside the range of these “centrally controlled content” programs. For example, what is the teacher of a subject based on local Geography to do? There are many courses that are “personalized” to a particular school or district that will fall outside the range of products provided by the large developers.

The answer is to use an adaptive learning engine that integrates with their Online Learning Environment, such as LeaP from Desire2Learn. This engine will use their current resources and build personalized pathways for students. Data from quizzes, etc. will feed into the Gradebook and intelligent analytics of the central Online Learning Environment. These integrated systems will do the “heavy lifting” in the background so that the teacher can focus what is important – the student and his/her learning.


While these adaptive learning engines are still being fine-tuned, their impact will be dramatic. Just as gaming engines revolutionized the computer game industry, adaptive learning engines will revolutionize education. It will enter a new phase…a phase where individualized learning is much more easily attained by organizations of any size and where teachers can focus even more on the core of their profession.

Peter West is Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College in Australia. He has over 15 years’ experience leading K12 schools in technology enhanced education, particularly blended learning using online learning environments. He can be contacted at pwest@ssc.qld.edu.au.