A checkmark over a laptop screen indicates college course completion and ways to improve student retention.

Can adaptive tools improve student retention?

A new initiative targets ways to improve student retention and course success with digital courseware

A new initiative is targeting failure rates in foundational courses–a major cause of college dropouts–by giving scalable, high-quality support to colleges and universities seeking to improve student retention.

Every Learner Everywhere is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and aims to increase the number of institutions using adaptive learning to improve course outcomes and graduation rates.

The initiative, which consists of a network of 12 higher-ed and digital learning groups, also hopes to eliminate the equity gap for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students.

Read more: Adaptive learning helps students finish faster

Foundational courses (college credit-bearing and/or developmental education courses that enroll large numbers of students and have high rates of Ds, Fs, withdrawals, and incompletes) continue to be a barrier to entry for undergraduates.

Across all foundational courses, completion rates are 63 percent for community colleges and 75 percent for public four-year colleges. For foundational English and math courses, in particular, completion rates are 21 percent for two-year institutions and 51 percent for four-year institutions. What’s more, completion rates are 6 percent lower for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students.

These failed courses put students further at risk by setting them on a path to leave school without a degree–all while having accumulated debt.

Every Learner Everywhere will directly address student success in these foundational courses by supporting the effective integration of adaptive learning systems, which offer a student-centric design, in an attempt to improve student retention.

Innovative edtech tools such as adaptive courseware can tailor the learning experience to the individual and, when implemented effectively, contribute toward increases in student success. This is particularly helpful for students who may otherwise struggle in a traditional learning format.

The network will help colleges and universities target course completion and improve student retention with a variety of options, ranging from webinars and implementation guidebooks to technical assistance and extended site visits. Work will begin in Texas, Ohio, and Florida, and then will expand nationwide with plans to reach approximately 200 institutions.

As the four-year initiative proceeds, the network will strive to raise awareness about how adaptive courseware and personalized learning can be effective and, by improving course completion rates, can improve student retention as a result.

Some of the network partners, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, plan to leverage the investment in their direct work with institutions.

“While most colleges and universities are aware of the benefits that adaptive learning can offer students and instructors, many institutions are unsure of the process for effectively implementing adaptive courseware on their campus,” says Karen Vignare, executive director of the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities Personalized Learning Consortium, which is currently overseeing work among eight public universities that have scaled adaptive courseware to nearly 75,000 course enrollments across 16 disciplines. “The resources and support of this network will allow this work to scale across a broader range of institutions and promote success to an even greater number of students.”

The groups also will focus on analyzing data and making sure the lessons gleaned from the initiative are leveraged by institutions.

“Experience tells us that closing equity gaps in course outcomes requires thoughtful use of data on student learning processes and outcomes,” says Barbara Means, executive director of Learning Sciences Research at Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization devoted to closing the Digital Learning Gap and part of Every Learner Everywhere. “Digital Promise is committed to helping educational institutions design and implement data collection and analysis processes that indicate whether their use of digital learning is helping a broader group of students succeed. We’ll also synthesize findings across institutions to identify how to best use adaptive learning with different kinds of students and for different learning goals.”

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Laura Ascione