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3 Ways Higher Ed is Making Learning More Personal

November 17, 2014

Two years ago, I attended freshmen orientation with my son who was entering the 9th grade along with 400 other freshman—together a microcosm of American youth: representing multiple cultures, languages, and income levels. Sitting on the bleachers in the cavernous gymnasium, with school colors blanketing the walls, the incoming class was addressed by a guidance counselor who asked: how many of you are going to college?

Naturally, almost every student raised their hands. All young people aspire to go to college. It’s their American Dream. And success at college—earning some kind of postsecondary credential—is their ticket to a healthy and productive life, and a sustaining career. But too many who go to college don’t succeed. Overall, more than 4 out of 10 students who begin college never finish. The outcome is worse for low-income students: fewer than 1 in 5 will end up with a college credential, and thus an opportunity to escape from poverty. It breaks my heart, as I know we can do so much more to help students succeed.

Look, we have known for years that students learn best when education is personalized to their needs and goals. The question we face as a nation is how to deliver that personalized education to the millions of students who seek a college credential, and who need to succeed if we are to develop the workforce our nation needs to remain competitive in a global economy.

This is where technology comes in. With today’s technology, we can personalize a college education in ways that were virtually impossible a few decades ago, and we can do this in a way that reaches millions of students—all of our students—empowering them to take ownership of their learning and earn a postsecondary credential.

I’m excited to share three ways our partners are using technology to enable all college students to get the best, most personalized education.

1. College Courses that Adapt to Each Student
For many of today’s college students, courses can feel too large, too slow, or too fast—like they’re designed for somebody else. Where they are conducted through large lecture classes, they can also feel anonymous, lacking in any real contact with faculty or their teaching assistants. Luckily, colleges are implementing new approaches to learning and instruction that better serve the needs of each individual learner and ensure that all students have targeted instruction from their faculty—that is instruction that meets their specific needs.

For example, in the fall of 2013, UC Davis deployed an adaptive intro biology course in partnership with Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative (OLI), a program that had been proven to help students cover 33 percent more content in the same time period as their peers in traditional courses. At the start of each biology course, students complete online modules that tailor materials to where they need greater support. From there, they experience a blend of lectures, peer tutoring, interactive simulations, online programs that adjust to a student’s skill level, and individual instruction. Faculty use the technologies to assist and instruct students in a manner that meets their specific needs, stretching their creativity and imagination—creating a more personalized experience that keeps students moving ahead toward graduation. In doing so, UC Davis has improved course completion rates by 40 percent. The results are even better for low-income, first-generation college students. 

2. New Digital Tools That Make Learning Personal
Our Next Generation Courseware Challenge is on the hunt for the best digital learning solutions to help low-income students succeed in general education college courses. A recent finalist, Cerego, is using brain and memory science to improve retention in StatsPL, an introductory statistics course. Cerego isn’t just offering new ways to learn stats; it’s also working to make the subject more personal. Students will have access to “statistics in action,” where they can explore concepts using examples from a host of topics, including sports data or underwater exploration. This is a welcome relief to many college students who have found other stats courses to be dense and unengaging.

Another digital learning program is working to tackle a chronic problem: Each year, about half of all new college students are required to take developmental math classes, which help them bolster basic skills so they’re prepared for college-level work, but don’t earn them any college credits. As a result, these students struggle financially and academically, and only 22 percent of them end up finishing college.

EdReady is a new online tool working to solve this. EdReady lets college-bound students, those considering college, or students already in college assess their readiness for college math. After the assessment, the program outlines a personalized road map to help students fill in knowledge gaps. Early results in Montana show that 86 percent of students in the state’s EdReady program moved up one math level in 12 weeks or less—giving them much stronger footing on their path to a college degree.

3. Integrated Planning and Student Advising
We also focus on ensuring students receive integrated planning and advising supports to keep them on track, help them select the best major for their skills and interests, and ensure they are taking the right courses—at the right time.

Here’s one example: to increase student success, Montgomery County Community College in Philadelphia is implementing a completely new student planning and retention system. The system will draw on predictive analytics to help counselors and academic advisors determine whether a student is at risk of dropping or failing out. Using previous academic performance as a starting point, advisors will also work with students to select courses best suited for them. It’s a customized education that puts students on a degree and career path that’s best suited for them. As with the instructional technologies described above, the student advising systems referenced here augment and enhance the role of expert and professional practitioners—faculty and advisors—in what is ultimately a human endeavor: education.

 ADDITIONAL READ: How colleges are using data to engage and retain students.

As Vicki Phillips and I outlined in a previous blog, personalized learning is not a new concept. It’s happening throughout higher education, with more than 7 million students taking online or blended courses. However, our work at the foundation has just begun.

When I think about those students attending freshmen orientation with my son, I’m optimistic that we can give them a college education they need and deserve. To do this, we must continue to support colleges, universities, and education partners as they work to help all students pursue their dreams, lead healthy and productive lives, and attain a college degree.

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         All young people aspire to go to college. It’s their American Dream.

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