Voice from the Industry

Better Learning Through Real-Time Adaptivity and Artificial Intelligence

Browse to any of your favorite news feeds, and you are likely to run across a piece on how artificial intelligence is changing the way we look at everything. Applications for manufacturing, medicine, and transportation are just a few. Companies like Amazon and Google have been using artificial intelligence for years to enhance their business models and improve their customers’ experiences. Though we see many applications of adaptive systems in education technology, we haven’t yet fully leveraged the power of artificial intelligence.

Advances in artificial intelligence, specifically in machine learning and deep learning, hold immense promise for providing better learning opportunities and helping more students and teachers achieve their full potential. These advances allow for real-time adaptivity and will greatly improve the classroom ecosystem. Some of the benefits include:

  1. Leveling of the playing field for all students with applications for every learner
  2. Optimized student learning in a more engaging way, leading to improved persistence and self confidence
  3. An optimized classroom ecosystem that improves both teacher and student performance
  4. Discovery of what works and doesn’t work and the ability to keep learners on a sustainable path of continuous improvement

These benefits have largely gone unrealized. Much of what we see in classrooms today—what we call ”adaptive”—takes advantage of a lot of great content and assessments to customize practice and instruction using fixed pathways based on how students interact in the system. Many are very good programs, and we’ve seen some substantial gains in many instances.

The thing that sets AI and specifically machine and deep learning apart is that it isn’t limited by existing content and fixed pathways. Think of it as creating new content and new pathways specifically designed for an individual student or teacher in real time based on the engine’s experience with that individual student and teacher, the classroom ecosystem, and the engine’s deep knowledge of thousands of other students and teachers who have behaved in similar ways with an infinite number of outcomes and combinations. 

Voyager Sopris Learning has a long history of building research-based and data-driven products that put the student and teacher at the center of the learning environment. Our goal is to provide the most effective products and services to help students and teachers reach their full potential. A couple of years ago we asked ourselves how we could leverage the latest in learning science to improve student outcomes and help teachers have a greater impact, optimizing both the teaching and learning process.

Our answer was to partner with the learning science pioneers at Seattle-based Enlearn, headed by Chief Scientist/Founder Zoran Popović, who is also Professor of Computer Science and the Director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington. The Enlearn platform, which powers our new K-5 ELA program Velocity, is unlike anything in K-12 education today. It is the beginning of our quest to leverage the power of AI for education.

The engine provides students with just the right content they need at just the right time, so they can learn more and learn faster. This is not a traditional AI “expert system” relying only on a fixed and predetermined set of outcomes but rather a dynamic system (like a neural network) that leverages algorithms to learn from student behavior in order to find the most optimal path to reach proficiency. It is what we call Real Time Adaptive instruction. It is the learning approach that will lead to better success in the future. 

This is the real power of utilizing AI applications for our students and teachers. The benefits of AI are being realized across a variety of industries today. As leaders in education technology, we can and should learn from these successes to deliver on our promise to students and teachers.

For an excellent primer on machine learning (and its history), see http://a16z.com/2016/06/10/ai-deep-learning-machines/


Jeffrey A. Elliott (President) joined Voyager Sopris Learning® in the summer of 2015 as the next step of his distinguished career in education. Jeff’s dedication to local and global efforts to give students the tools they need to succeed was displayed during his tenure as President/CEO of The Virtual High School (leading efforts in college readiness), as President/CEO at Advanced Academics (pioneering strategies to serve at-risk students) and as Vice President at Wright Group/McGraw-Hill (integrating and managing professional development and international acquisitions), as well as in numerous strategic planning and management roles, most notably at Chicago Tribune Company. He may be reached at Jeff.Elliott@voyagersopris.com.