The Thinking LMS

U. of Phoenix plans to 'hyper-personalize' learning experience for all 400,000 of its students by building an online learning platform that thinks.
October 18, 2010

ANAHEIM -- What can colleges learn from Facebook?

The popular social networking platform certainly seems to have their students’ attention. Yet if Facebook does add unique value as a teaching platform, that value has so far proven limited.

Where Facebook has shown unique value is as a data-gathering tool. Never has a website been able to learn so much about its users. And that is where higher education should be taking notes, said Angie McQuaig, director of data innovation at the University of Phoenix, at the 2010 Educause conference on Friday.

If Facebook can use analytics to revolutionize advertising in the Web era, McQuaig suggested, colleges can use the same principles to revolutionize online learning.

The trick, she said, is individualization. Facebook lets users customize their experiences with the site by creating profiles and curating the flow of information coming through their “news feeds.” In the same motion, the users volunteer loads of information about themselves.

“Kevin and I might have the exact same list of friends on Facebook,” McQuaig said, picking on one audience member near the front. “But because we have different interests and different knowledge bases, his home page is going to be completely different from mine, and his experience is going to be very different from mine. And Facebook knows everything that we do, every click… if they know I’m a vegan, they can give me great advertisements [relating to] veganism.”

The most successful commercial websites are already moving in this direction, and higher education -- which itself is growing increasingly Web-based -- needs to catch up, McQuaig said. “What we really need to do now is deeply understand our learners,” she said.

This is where the University of Phoenix is headed with its online learning platform. In an effort ambitiously dubbed the "Learning Genome Project,” the for-profit powerhouse says it is building a new learning management system (or LMS) that gets to know each of its 400,000 students personally and adapts to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of their “learning DNA.”

Unlike analog forms of student profiling -- such as surveys, which are only as effective as the students’ ability to diagnose their own learning needs -- Phoenix’s Learning Genome Project will be designed to infer details about students from how they behave in the online classroom, McQuaig said. If students grasp content more quickly when they learn it from a video than when they have to read a text, the system will feed them more videos. If a student is bad at interpreting graphs, the system will recognize that and present information accordingly — or connect the student with another Phoenix student who is better at graph-reading. The idea is to take the model of personal attention now only possible in the smallest classrooms and with the most responsive professors, make it even more perceptive and precise, and scale it to the largest student body in higher education.

“[Each student] comes to us with a set of learning modality preferences,” McQuaig said. The online learning platform Phoenix wants to build, she said, “reject[s] the one-size-fits-all model of presenting content online.” In the age of online education and the personal Web, the standardized curriculum is marked for extinction, McQuaig said; data analytics are going to kill it.

Not yet, though. The project is early in the design phase. In fact, Friday was the first time that Phoenix, known for playing its hand close to the chest, had shared the conceptual framework for the Learning Genome Project at a major conference. The company plans to publish research on the topic soon, McQuaig told Inside Higher Ed after her presentation. Also, in order to make the platform as flexible as it needs to be, Phoenix plans to phase out its current in-house learning management system and build the new one with open-source tools. It even plans to share some (but not all) of what it builds with other institutions, she said.

Phoenix is certainly not the only institution focusing on how data logged by learning management systems can be used to improve learning. Nor is it the only institution trying to use some of the principles that have made Facebook and Netflix so successful. Two days earlier at Educause, envoys from the South Orange Community College District had unveiled a project called Sherpa, which uses information about students to recommend courses and services. McQuaig said Phoenix has been in conversations with a number of universities that are working toward similar learner-centered online platforms.

There are challenges, McQuaig said. Being so attentive for all its students at once will require a lot of data processing; whether the system — as Phoenix envisions it — can work reliably at scale remains to be seen. In any case, she said, it will be expensive to make. And then there are the inevitable privacy issues: Some Facebook users have become more guarded in recent years about the personal data they feed the system due to concerns about how that data might be used; one could imagine a similar backlash against an online learning platform built on the same principles. A for-profit company that collects data not only on what students like but also on how their minds work might make some people uneasy. (McQuaig later told Inside Higher Ed that Phoenix is committed to "ethical use of the data" and letting students choose how much information they submit.)

But that is where online education, and the Internet as a whole, is headed, McQuaig said. And when Phoenix makes a claim about the future of education, many people are inclined to listen. At a time when the company and its for-profit ilk have been portrayed by some in Congress as pariahs, Phoenix is also envied by many traditional colleges for having the predominant brand in the fastest growing sector of higher education. In a preamble to McQuaig’s presentation, the university's provost, Adam Honea, discussed Phoenix’s history as an online pioneer with a conspicuous we-told-you-so subtext. “Historically, I felt that many times we were trying to explain why we were doing what we were doing,” Honea said. Now that everyone else has caught on, he said, Phoenix is looking at the next step.

“One of the purposes of this presentation was to share with you our early thoughts and to say, ‘Hey, we’re having a lot of active discussions with scholars and leaders in the field who are interested in building this,' ” McQuaig said, “'and if you’d love to chat with us, we’d love to chat with you.'”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.


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