AMAZON OR GOOGLE Might Know More About Your Students Than You Do


It’s amazing what digital tools can learn about us by simply watching what we do —whether that is shopping for books or music on Amazon, searching Expedia for hotel rooms or checking out at the local supermarket. Those observations are often used to deliver reading and listening recommendations, targeted advertisements and the coupons printed with our grocery receipts — all customized and miraculously germane to our interests.

If you buy into the notion that no two learners are alike, that people learn at different tempos and often require different levels of help and feedback, then online systems that don’t adapt to individual needs are really not much of a step beyond textbooks.

If our bank, search engine or local grocery store can seem so effortlessly informed about our needs and preferences, why not apply the same magic to learning? In fact some innovative products in education are now doing just that, and they are proving to be particularly effective in ongoing, formative assessment and practice.

While diagnostic assessment — figuring out what we know— and summative assessment — figuring out what we’ve learned — can and have been easily moved online, applying technology to those relatively simple use cases would not cause even the most basic of online educational programs to break a sweat. The real gold in digital systems is to combine instruction, practice and ongoing assessment that educators can use in real time to differentiate teaching, tailor feedback and continuously measure the progress of a student, group or entire classroom. And more importantly, systems can constantly adapt to an individual user’s unique needs.

If you buy into the notion that no two learners are alike, that people learn at different tempos and often require different levels of help and feedback, then online systems that don’t adapt to individual needs are really not much of a step beyond textbooks. If you believe that most classrooms are populated by students that are, at any given moment, at various places on the learning curve, and that they would be better served by a curriculum that adapts to them versus them having to adapt to a curriculum, then a “smarter” online system that has that capability would be more desirable than one that treated everyone as if they were identical.


While it’s easy to agree that having an online system meet a student where they are today would be beneficial, getting them started in the right place really only solves part of the problem. A truly worthy online system would keep students engaged throughout the school year through a combination of adapting to their needs as a learner with relevant content — including hints and feedback — and through the use of badges and instructional games that reinforce progress.

My wife and I are all too familiar with the concept of engagement as it pertains to homework. While getting our kids to sit down for even 15 minutes to complete a few math exercises is often a challenge, they would willingly spend hours building worlds and interacting on Minecraft. Although I have to admit they have a better understanding of concepts like farming and iron ore as a raw material than would have otherwise been the case, the difference is engagement.

An adaptive system should seamlessly include many grade levels of material so that a struggling fifth grade math student, for example, might get served items from lower grades that help build them back up to on-level material. Continuously presenting them content that they can’t handle or understand is an engagement-killer, just as surely as presenting an advanced student material well below their current capabilities would be. Truly adaptive systems make those adjustments seamlessly, so that every student is presented the right content at the right moment.

Productive Struggle – It’s not Just About Getting to the Right Answer

If a student is served up the right content at the right time with the right feedback mechanisms, they are more likely to remain engaged. With that engagement comes the possibility of productive struggle, or effortful practice, which is far more effective for learning than passive reading, listening or watching.

Memorizing, cramming, highlighting — all tried and true methodologies in my day — can certainly be effective for short-term retention. They can also, however, create what some have called the “illusion of knowing,” and are often not very useful when a student is trying to later retrieve what was once learned in order to apply it in a new or different situation. I’ll never forget the many times as a kid asking my mother for the meaning of a particular word. “Look it up in the dictionary,” was always her response, to which I would say, “Why not just tell me?” She would then point out that I was far more likely to remember a definition if I spent a few moments doing the research myself. The lesson being that getting to the right answer isn’t always enough — the journey to it may be just as important in developing understanding and retention. And thus my first introduction to productive struggle began some 50 years ago.

An Alphabet Soup of Standards

In 2001, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) was reauthorized as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In June of 2010, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) were released, and in December 2015 ESEA was again reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), thereby replacing NCLB.Throw in PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), SBAC (the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium), SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test or Scholastic Aptitude Test), ACT (American College Test), and PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and you’ve deployed most of the alphabet.

If you find all that confusing, imagine how educational publishers struggle to keep producing materials that are current, relevant and useful to students and schools across the country. As states and districts move from one standard to another and sometimes back again, or use an existing standard but call it something else, the entire market has become a moving target. A digital product aligned to any particular standard in recent years has been a risky business for both vendors and users alike.

Defining what students should know and when is a goal shared by most K-12 standards. Differences arise in what order or at what grade skills should have been acquired, although in some cases unique standards (e.g. financial literacy) exist in a few states or districts.

A state-of-the-art online education system should therefore focus on skills, not standards, and avoid the standards debate entirely. It should also allow a teacher to assign goals to each student and know which skills are relevant to each goal.

Dashboards Aren’t Just for Cars

Most of the preceding has been a presentation of ideas around the features and functionality that would be desirable in an online learning system from a student perspective, but what about the teachers?

Again, the power in these systems lies in their ability to observe what a student is doing so that the right content can be served up at the right time and the right hints, feedback and encouragement can be delivered in the moment — all of which will help engagement. Just as importantly, however, they can inform a teacher about how a student is doing in terms of the paths they take toward proficiency, how they stack up against the rest of the class, who needs help, who should have praise, who should be assigned additional material, etc. A more subtle analysis of how work is being done can be very informative for teachers. A student that spends very little time on a system and generates lots of wrong answers without accessing instructional help in the form of hints or teacher feedback is quite likely guessing. Another that also makes a lot of mistakes but spends time accessing hints and feedback, etc., is showing grit —and likely best served a different kind of intervention.

A state-of-the art online system should offer a single, approachable dashboard that allows teachers to easily see a snapshot of the class and then drill down into the unique, personalized needs of a particular student, measure progress and grit, and to prepare reports for parents — all with the push of a button or two. It should allow reporting at an individual, class, school or district level. And it should of course ensure the highest levels of privacy around student information.


Educators should be able to deploy tools that improve student outcomes in the same way that Amazon, Google and your grocery store use technology to improve your interactions with those services. We have the ability today to serve students with the content that meets them where they are and takes them where they need to be in an engaging fashion that promotes productive struggle, develops grit and prepares them for the skills they need in a world of increasingly rigorous standards. Such systems:

  • Present individual students with content that is right for them at that moment.
  • Adapt in real time as students learn and progress.
  • Further engagement by offering badges, games and other tangible signs of progress.
  • Offer the flexibility to draw upon many grade levels of content.
  • Offer educators the ability to drill down into individuals and groups in order to differentiate instruction and help.
  • Are oriented around skills, not standards.
Rick Noble is CEO of Triumph Learning, publisher of print and digital K-12 resources used by millions of students in 30,000+ schools.

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