Adapting to Developmental Ed

With colleges desperate to improve remedial programs, educational tech companies see a growing market for "adaptive" learning software.
March 10, 2011

With public higher education systems under political pressure to increase completion rates, and foundations offering grants to colleges that are using new technologies to help usher students through to a degree, education technology companies are seeing a ripe market of potential buyers for new e-learning products — in particular, software aimed at high school graduates who lack the basic reading, writing, and math skills to succeed at the college level.

Technology geared toward helping students “catch up” has been around for a while, but only recently has it achieved a potentially game-changing level of sophistication, according to Carol Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation. “These products that 10 years ago were sort of iffy, at best, have now become remarkably mature and high quality products,” she says. And while public higher ed systems are seeing their budgets cut, developmental education is in such bad shape that many colleges are prepared to spend — often with foundation support — on products they think could help bring them more in line with state and national completion goals. There are many contracts to be won, Twigg says.

The education tech industry is responding by mobilizing teams to tweak and re-brand existing software for the developmental market and begin developing new products to sell to desperate colleges.

Most companies are offering variations on a theme: “adaptive” technology that learns the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and tailors its tutorials to address their needs. Unlike a traditional sequence of instructions in a learning exercise, adaptive software adjusts to how well a student appears to understand different concepts. If a student struggles to learn a skill when it is presented one way, the software will detect her confusion and present it another way. The model is highly individualized instruction, without the many instructors that would be needed to adapt to each student's needs the old-fashioned way.

Since certain standardized tests, such as the GRE, already use adaptive testing that shapes exams to the skill of the test-taker in real time, it might come as no surprise that a number of entrants to the developmental education market, such as Knewton and Grockit, have emerged from the test-prep industry.

Publishers such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Cengage Learning are also getting in on the action. Pearson earlier this month released MyFoundationsLab, a spinoff of its popular MyMathLab module. The company is marketing the new product, which is adaptive and covers basic reading, writing, and math concepts, directly to colleges for program-wide adoption in addition to selling to individual professors and students. It says it has already signed up 50 colleges.

McGraw-Hill last year created a unit devoted to pushing its existing adaptive products — LearnSmart and ALEKS — in developmental education, and it plans to brand new iterations of that technology specifically for the developmental market, according to officials there. Cengage also says it recently scrambled a “developmental studies team” and has seen a “significant” uptick in sales of its products in that market, according to a spokeswoman.

Blackboard, long known for its learning management products, made its own move last year, partnering with another company, K12, to develop remedial courses that the company says use adaptive technology.

And then there are the newcomers from the world of test prep. Knewton, which was founded in 2008 by the former director of new markets at Kaplan, Inc., just inked a deal with Arizona State University that is expected to see the nearly 7,000 students in two Arizona State developmental courses, college math and college algebra, using the Knewton platform next year. David Liu, the chief operating officer at Knewton, says the company is close to similar deals with 10 other colleges, and has had preliminary talks with more than 100 beyond that.

Grockit, which over five years has established itself as a player in test prep, says it is expanding its combination “adaptive” and “social” learning model into the developmental education market. Much like the live support chats that companies sometimes offer through their websites to help perplexed software users, Grockit retains a bullpen of Web-based tutors whom students can ask for help if the company's adaptive teaching platform is not doing the trick. Grockit says it is close to a number of deals with colleges that it says are similar to Knewton’s Arizona State partnership.

Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, says he is happy to see the private sector investing so heavily in technology that might help colleges get students through developmental programs. At the same time, he points out that this is not the first time tech companies have swooped in with a supposed elixir for developmental education. In the past, certain products “failed because the technologies weren’t able to deal with differential learning styles well,” Boylan says.

That's exactly the problem that the latest generation of commercial products claims to address. “Personalization” — or “individualization,” depending on whose brochure you’re reading — is their watchword. The technology industry in general has tacked toward personalization, with companies such as Google, Netflix, Facebook and Amazon mining user data to show individual customers what they probably want to see based on their needs and interests, and higher ed has begun to follow suit. Developmental education programs especially could stand to benefit from the application of the same principles in learning design, the companies say.

“With students who are already struggling, [the problem] in teaching to the mean is that you end up alienating students across the entire bell curve,” says Vineet Madan, vice president for learning ecosystems at McGraw-Hill.

“That’s where the adaptive technology comes in — that personalization,” says Madan.

“It is similar to what Google and Netflix and other web applications are using, where they measure activity that user is doing and bringing back the data … based upon actions that you’ve taken,” says David Liu, Knewton’s chief operating officer. “Not only do we data mine all [your] activities as a student, but we also begin to understand some of the tendencies you have and compare you to cohorts that we have using the system.”

Knewton, for example, has each student take a diagnostic test to get a sense of his baseline competency in, say, college-level math. Based on the results, it generates a list of concepts a student needs to learn, derived from how well he knows each concept and how well he is expected to know it. As the student takes tutorials and quizzes in an attempt to improve his mastery of the concepts, the program logs how much time he is spending on various ideas and questions, as well as which questions he is answering wrong and how he is likely to have arrived at those wrong answers. In doing so, the program can allegedly pinpoint that student’s specific level of understanding of each concept and let him — and his instructor — know what he needs to work on in order to pass.

The personalization extends to professors, who can set expectations for how well they want students to master different concepts based on which ones they want to emphasize. They can also view the data profiles of each student as they evolve in order to prepare them for any necessary human intervention.

Most of the companies, after all, say their products are intended as a supplement to live counseling and instruction, not a replacement. In developmental education especially, the “blended” model — which promotes heavy instructor attention no matter how smart the software is — is still the best way to improve learning, Twigg says.

Arizona State acknowledged that its recent deal with Knewton was a substantial investment, but says it has no current plans to scale back on instructors and support personnel in its developmental programs. The return on investment, says university spokesman Russ Knocke, comes with seeing fewer students drop out during remediation. “Retaining students who might otherwise fall through the cracks is certainly cost-effective for the long-term,” he says.

“When you’re face-to-face with students, you can track them and encourage them much more directly,” says Twigg. “The online environment is good for lots and lots of things, obviously, but … these are students who have no study habits. Creating that [classroom] structure is very important.”

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