Turning Classrooms Upside-Down with Adaptive Learning

I’m often frustrated when my children bring home assignments based on memorization and regurgitation. Will these assignments really prepare them for modern life? Society is evolving, and increasingly the jobs that will support a quality standard of living will be those of knowledge workers. In my own career, the skills that have taken me forward have little to do with what I experienced in school. What has been most valuable is the ability to collaborate with others, to manage complex projects, and to satisfy multiple stakeholder interests. On the job, I’ve learned the most from direct experiences with peers – both seasoned veterans and new hires that bring fresh perspectives.

Looking back, one of the strangest observations I’ve made is that even though I’ve worked in technology for my entire career, my math and physics lectures haven’t been as valuable as the time I spent on my high school yearbook. There I had to work with a large team and align stakeholders (getting approval from my principal to include results of a survey question on sexual activity is particularly memorable).  These experiences were useful, but they were the exception to the rule. The vast majority of my education was spent in a traditional lecture format.


That’s why I was encouraged to learn about the concept of a “flipped” classroom from Shelley Shott (Intel Corporate Affairs Group) and Dr. Sinem Aslan (Intel Labs).  Over the centuries, the developed world shifted first from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. Today, though we have shifted again to an information economy, we have been slow to let go of our industrial age teaching methods. The norm is still a process whereby a teacher lectures and students quietly absorb information. Later, they attempt to master the concepts through homework – without easy access to teachers or peers.

Technology allows us to turn this model on its head. In a flipped classroom, the “lecture” component happens at home (or, really, anywhere/anytime) through instructional videos, simulations, games, etc. Students can stop, rewind, and replay as needed or switch to alternative tools. The time together in the classroom is spent in the most valuable way – collaborating and interacting with others to work on real-world problems and authentic projects. Instead of lecturing, teachers use this time to provide individual guidance and support as needed. The focus of this approach is on the learner rather than the teacher. This resembles how a manager guides his or her team members at a company like Intel.

Some schools have already begun to experiment with this flipped approach. Corporate Affairs has a vision to help drive an educational transformation to student-centered learning, and Sinem’s team at the Intel Open Lab Istanbul is researching technologies to help accelerate this. Working with Intel’s Perceptual Computing group in Israel, her team is developing Adaptive Learning environments based on Intel RealSense technology. By looking at facial expressions, body language, and other important parameters, the children’s tablets or PCs will be able to tell if a they are “getting it” or if they are confused, distracted, or bored.

Correlating the learner’s state and the content on the screen, the system could recommend solutions to get the learner back on task. If a student is having trouble following a written passage, it might speak the text aloud, try different learning tools, or connect them via social networks to other students who can elaborate. Additionally, it could give their teacher a dashboard view of how they are reacting to the material. This is especially useful in a flipped classroom setting because it allows students to digest lessons at their own pace, away from the classroom, while still maintaining the teachers’ ability to gauge their progress and needs.  This dashboard could include a variety of analytics tools to help the teacher diagnose learning issues and narrow down potential solutions based on shared data from other teachers.

This monitoring and feedback could help to ensure that the “home” side of the flipped classroom works as well or better as a traditional schoolroom lecture. This in turn facilitates the use of in-class time to deepen learning through interactive, collaborative, and self-directed projects. Technologies can facilitate social interactions between students directly if they are having difficulty.  As the teacher supervises these interactions, he or she would be armed with real-time data indicating where personal guidance is needed most.


As a modern parent, although it raises questions for me about grading and standardization, I see a great potential in this approach. According to a survey conducted by Intel and Penn Schoen Berland (see table above) more than 70% of people seem to agree that student monitoring technology such as this could help. While we also need great teachers and involved parents, we should make sure our schools take advantage of the tools of our age. By using technology to its fullest outside of class, we can ensure that time spent in class maximizes the unique value of face-to-face interactions. Instead of delivering a one-size-fits all lecture, a teacher could use this time understanding how my child thinks and fostering teamwork. And all of this could be done in an environment that develops the 21st century skills and capabilities they will need to succeed in our future information economy.

Sean Koehl

About Sean Koehl

Sean Koehl is a Vision Strategist for Intel Labs, the global research arm of Intel Corporation. He is responsible for crafting visions of how Intel R&D efforts could impact daily life in the future. He leverages insights from Intel’s technologists, social scientists, futurists, and business strategists to articulate how technology innovations and new user experiences could improve lives and society. Sean received a bachelor’s degree in Physics from Purdue University and launched his career at Intel in 1998. He has worn many hats in his career including those of an engineer, evangelist, writer, creative director, spokesperson, and strategist. He has led a variety of projects and events, authored numerous technology publications and blogs, and holds seven patents. He is based at Intel’s headquarters in Santa Clara, California.

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