A Chicago University is reaching out to underserved students with an affordable new program powered by adaptive technology.

A new collaboration between Carnegie Mellon’s learning company Acrobatiq and National Louis University has created a new, innovative undergraduate program aimed at expanding access to underserved learners and improving student achievement through adaptive-powered, competency-based learning.

The Harrison Professional Pathways Program at National Louis University, the adaptive learning platform, content library and professional services of Acrobatiq, aims to deliver a competency-centric blended learning program to bridge the achievement gap for underserved learners in the Chicago area.

According to a 2014 White House report, half of all people from high-income families earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25, while just 1 in 10 people from low-income families do. As such, the program reaches out to many first-time and first-generation college students who often do not complete their bachelor’s degree due to challenges faced outside of the classroom (e.g. work and family responsibilities, poor preparation, or inadequate academic advising and support).

The Harrison Professional Pathways Program is a two-year pathway that leads to a four-year degree. Students can choose a general studies, education or business pathway for their first two years, which are sequenced, before transitioning into existing bachelor’s programs in many different majors and formats for their junior and senior years.

One of the key ways the program broadens access is by only requiring a 2.0 GPA to apply, which is a good deal lower than most programs.

This is also feasible for many students because the program only costs $10,000 per year–less than the average cost of a bachelor’s degree program in Illinois and one of the most affordable in the state. National Louis is able to provide the low cost thanks to a flexible online/on-campus hybrid model.

“Our vision for the program and the need for the program came out of reality, and out of what’s happening in society today,” said Aarti Dhupelia, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at National Louis University. “Adults need postsecondary education to be successful in today’s economy, but many don’t have it. There’s a huge gap that needs to be filled. We at NLU saw it as a moral and economic imperative for society to reach students with potential…and directly address research on reasons those students are not getting through college.”

(Next page: The program’s blended learning experience)

The program was born out of a desire from National Louis University administrators to find new ways to personalize the learning experience using data derived from online work to adapt and inform the frequency and type of support services given to students.

National Louis chose to partner with Acrobatiq largely because of their data-driven instructional design methodology. Acrobatiq provides a platform and services that easily enables instructors to create, deliver and continuously improve effective learning experiences that can be customized to the program’s unique needs. National Louis University is currently using it, or plans to use it, in more than 14 courses, and they are consistently working with Acrobatiq to improve those courses and their associated support services with the detailed data they’ve been amassing.

It took about two years to design and launch the Harrison Professional Pathways Program, with faculty, student services staff, IT officers and online operations officers providing input on the platform and designing the courses. Implementation went very quickly once Acrobatiq was chosen to be the adaptive courseware provider, though, with the first student enrolled only four months after the first technical conversations with the company.

The Importance of Non-Passive Learning

Much of the program is completed online using Acrobatiq’s adaptive courseware. The online, media-integrated courseware replaces the need for a traditional print-based textbook, which is a major element that helps keep down the cost of the program. Online, students build foundational knowledge and are able to practice and get feedback on what they’ve learned whenever it is best suited to their schedule.

Every online lesson is centered around a specific learning objective, and will embed relevant activities or problems for students to complete. Whenever students answer wrongly, they get adaptive feedback on the reason for their misconception.

“There’s a close relationship between what students are doing on the platform, and what they’re doing when they get to class,” said Acrobatiq CEO Eric Frank. “If you’re going to reduce hours together and rely more on the environment provided online, it has to deliver a real learning experience that is not just passive, but active, where the student is getting feedback and is supported in a tutoring style. Students need and benefit from greater supported learning when they’re on their own. We’re building and providing tools to help design a learning experience that works.”

Students come to campus for class twice a week from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM and apply what they learned online. Instructors are able to review online data that is easy to read before class, and can then customize their teaching to focus on areas that gave the students the most trouble online. Additionally, they are able to easily make changes to the course for future semesters, such as revising how broadly or narrowly certain topics should be covered in order to reach desired learning outcomes.

“It’s a different way for students to learn and teachers to teach,” said Frank. “Some were a bit skeptical at first, but now they think it’s way better. Teachers especially almost never had insight and data under the hood like this…they didn’t all know exactly what to do with it at first. But NLU let each individual professor decide what they want to do with it. We also have teachers with innovative uses teach their peers what they’re doing with the data.”

Coach Power

Every student also works with a Success Coach who helps them manage the academic, personal and career planning aspects of college. Coaches review data on how students are doing every week and intervene if they are falling off track. Also, virtual office hours can be arranged for students who are struggling.

The program launched in September 2015 with 78 students, 96 percent of which returned for the Winter semester. With positive feedback on the program now available to learners, National Louis University has already received 1,500 applications for the Fall 2016 semester, and they intend to accommodate all of their applicants.

“We’re prepared to take on all 1,500 new students,” said Dhupelia. “We’d be hesitant to change our admissions requirements because our vision is broadened access. Our goal is that this is a model for higher education institutions. We have to be more efficient for students in this economy, but we can’t sacrifice quality. High-quality adaptive education and high-quality wrap-around supports have allowed us to do this in an affordable way. We’ve had great progress with students often left behind, and we truly appreciate Acrobatiq’s partnership in making it happen.”

About the Author:

Ronald Bethke


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