Websites Exploit Adaptive Technology to Customize Learning

The potential of online education to create a customized learning experience has been overlooked in favor of its reach. As Steve Lohr writes for the New York Times’ Bits Blog, the true benefits of learning delivered over the internet come from the fact that technology can do something a teacher standing in front of 30 students can not – create learning opportunities unique to the skills of each individual student.

As an example, Lohr cites Vocabulary.com, which has been helping people improve their language knowledge since 2011. A popular site with many plaudits to its credit, it improves by analyzing information about its users. The site makes its services available for free on the web but has recently released a paid version aimed at schools that allows teachers to track the individual progress of their students.

Educators who are familiar with Vocabulary.com are impressed by the technology. It is a sign, they say, that real progress is finally being made in computer-assisted education — at least in the domain of learning words and their meaning.

“Vocabulary.com is a good example of what is becoming possible and the direction we should be heading,” said Lee Ann Tysseling, an associate professor of education at Boise State University. “We’re seeing the blooming of good academic ways to use computers. It builds on good academic theory and not just what’s easy to program.”

Vocabulary.com improves of the typical methods used for rote memorization by approaching each bit of knowledge in a number of different ways. A student might be asked to define a word, and on getting it wrong be asked to define the same word in a different way later. This approach has proven to be better suited to tasks like vocabulary building, and according to Sandra Schamroth Abrams, a professor of education at St. John’s University, this kind of adoptive learning technique best exploits the unique things technology has to offer.

Vocabulary.com is built by a New York start-up, Thinkmap. Vocabulary.com is its second word-data product, following Visual Thesaurus, an interactive dictionary and thesaurus, which presents words, definitions and related words in animated graphics. The Canadian province of Alberta, for example, has licensed Visual Thesaurus for 600,000 students.

Whatever the costs, it’s not difficult to guess that the price on per-user basis of an online vocabulary tool like Vocabulary.com or ThinkMap is lower than the price of a traditional textbook.