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National University is working to create a personalized education platform that combines three of the buzziest innovations in higher education -- adaptive learning, competency-based learning and predictive analytics for student retention.

The California-based nonprofit university is spending $20 million on the four-year project, with a goal of using the new platform in 20 general education courses by next year. If successful, the university said the approach could apply to a broader swath of academic programs.

“How do we create a university that truly tries to adapt to the needs of its students?” said David Andrews, National’s president. “We have to have a better model for serving adult students.”

The urgency Andrews describes might seem surprising for a university that for decades has been structured with the nontraditional, working adult student in mind. The average age of its roughly 30,000 students is 32, and just 50 are of the first-time, full-time variety. A majority are women and a quarter are veterans of the U.S. military.

National, which has 28 campus locations in California, Nevada and Washington State, is considered a pioneer in online education. About 60 percent of students attend online. And the university was one of the first to allow students to enroll each month, rather than on a semester system.

But the monthly start format is no longer innovative, said Andrews, as a growing number of colleges have borrowed from the playbook of the University of Phoenix and other early entrants into the adult-serving market.

National’s board brought in Andrews last year in part to lead the $20 million project. He previously was dean and professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education. He was also the founding dean of Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology.

“I’ve tried just about every type of institution, with the exception of a community college,” he said.

Several experts said National appears to be one of the first to try to incorporate adaptive, predictive analytics and competency-based approaches with the same courses.

Loosely defined, adaptive learning is a form of courseware that adjusts automatically to individual students’ abilities and progress. Predictive analytics involves the use of data to help faculty members, advisers and students themselves stay on track, such as through triggering early-warning alerts when a student slips. Competency-based education programs drop conventional grading and break courses and credits into competencies that must be mastered.

National said it is exploring other emerging forms of personalized learning as part of the project, including first-course screening assessments and microbadging.

In addition, the university last month created a research and development arm, dubbed the Precision Institute, which will lead the project and support faculty members to study its progress. The university will make that research publicly available.

“We will be bringing in research fellows from around the country,” said Andrews. “We don’t just want this to be benefiting National students.”

More to Follow?

Phil Hill, an education technology consultant, said a key to whether the project succeeds is how well National grasps the challenges it’s trying to overcome.

“There’s a huge risk that you don’t understand the problem,” he said, referring to the challenge of designing academic programs around adult learners. Hill also wondered about National’s heavy focus on technological solutions. “Will they truly learn and adjust as they go along?”

While Hill was skeptical, citing the many buzzwords National used in announcing the work, he said the experiment is worth watching. “It’s definitely interesting. It’s a relatively large university that appears to be going all in on personalized learning.”

Mark Milliron, the co-founder and chief learning officer at Civitas, which has partnered with the university, said few academic programs include the range of emerging technologies and approaches National is pursuing.

“Those innovations tend to be done in silos,” he said, but he predicted that would change. “That’s the next phase for a lot of people.”

Milliron describes adaptive courseware and what Civitas does in somewhat similar terms. He said “pathway” analytics, like those Civitas offers, are designed to help students better devise a path to and through an academic program. Learning analytics are focused more on course work.

National’s attempt to put all the pieces together won’t be easy, Milliron said, particularly the competency-based part. That’s because competency-based learning tends to require approval from accreditors and to challenge the typical faculty role. Financial aid accounting also can be a challenge for those programs.

“The traditional higher education system is set up to be semester based,” he said. “That’s how the infrastructure grew up.”

Andrews agreed, adding that completion rates can be a challenge in competency-based programs, because of the flexibility they give students to progress through a program at their own pace.

The role of faculty members will be different in the pilot’s initial batch of 20 general education courses, said Andrews. For one thing, participating instructors have been asked to find three to five sources of open educational resources for each “microcompetency.”

Andrews is working on this himself, for competencies he will teach in the pilot. Instructors will track the efficacy of course material, adjusting it based on what they see.

“We think we can bend the price point” by using OER, he said. “We’re trying to create as much variety in those choices as possible.”

If National succeeds in creating a new iteration of its adult student-oriented degree programs, Hill said it won’t be the first time the university has been on the leading edge.

“They were among the real innovators to meet diverse learning needs,” he said.

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