A mentor sits on a bench with his student on a university campus. He knows exactly what his student's strengths and weaknesses are. He knows when to give him more challenging work and when to back off. He tailors his teaching to the student he's working with.
This personalized learning worked for students in medieval times at the first European universities, and it works best for students today, said Tim Renick, vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success at Georgia State University. But individual attention is often limited to students who can afford tuition at private universities, and just 66 percent of them graduate in six years, according to National Center for Education Statistics data from 2006-2012
"Technology affords us the opportunity at a large scale to begin to deliver some of that personalized education," Renick said.
Personalized education is just one of the strategies that seven urban universities are planning to use as they map out how to improve student success as part of a Transformational Planning Grant project.
Florida International University, California's Fresno State, Georgia State University, Oregon's Portland State University, Pennsylvania's Temple University, The University of Akron in Ohio, and the University of Illinois at Chicago each received a $225,000 grant in a year-long project designed to transform higher education delivery. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), in coordination with the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, is awarding the grants to the cohort of seven urban institutions and is overseeing their initiatives. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding to APLU to carry out the work.
Throughout the next year, these universities will build on efforts they've already started and share what they learn with each other. Their success stories will spread outside the circle of seven to a broader network of more than 200 public universities in the APLU.
"If as a group we bring those learning experiences to the table, we can all get more effective, more efficient and more outcomes-based to the benefit of the success of the student," said Mike Sherman, senior vice president, provost and chief operating officer of The University of Akron.
Each university is working on a number of different strategies, but enough of them have some overlap that they can help each other as they go along. For example, The University of Akron and Portland State University are both working on credentialing knowledge, while The University of Akron and Georgia State are working on adaptive learning, among other things.
For its part of the project, The University of Akron is planning an Institute for Learning and Assessment that will help it figure out how to measure, assess and credential what students learn in a variety of places. For example, students could receive credit for learning that they do on their own, on the job, in the community and at the university.
"You're kind of breaking down the borders, so to speak, of class time, seat time, lecture time, lab time and blurring that all together so that regardless of which of those types of time is used to acquire the knowledge, you're measuring to what extent knowledge has been acquired," Sherman said.
With modularized course content, students could test out of certain concepts in a course they already understand and just take the modules within the course that they haven't previously been exposed to. These different approaches to credentialing knowledge could theoretically speed up students' time to graduation and knock off semesters of tuition -- something The University of Akron is exploring to determine its feasibility.
Similarly, Portland State University is in the midst of a reTHINK PSU presidential initiative designed to meet increasing student demands, keep costs down, offer relevant degrees and be accountable to taxpayers who are asking whether the cost of a degree is worth it.
"What we're trying to do is figure out all kinds of ways to make education affordable, to provide access to more students and to help them graduate in a timely fashion," said Sona Karentz Andrews, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Portland State University.
For this grant project, Portland State University is honing in on cost-saving flexible degrees for adult learners and clear pathways to success for community college students. The clear pathways will help students understand what classes they need to graduate and prevent excess course taking that doesn't count toward their degree, Andrews said. Credentialing prior learning, and providing fully online and flipped classes will also save students time and money.
Georgia State University is taking a different approach to saving money and graduating students on time with the help of adaptive learning and predictive analytics. Over the last decade, Georgia State has raised its graduation rate 22 points so that now, more than half of students graduate in six years, regardless of the color of their skin or economic background, Renick said.
In hybrid introductory math classes over the last five years, D and F grades, as well as withdrawal rates, dropped from roughly 40 percent to 20 percent with a combination of traditional lectures and adaptive learning software. Now the university is looking for other difficult classes where adaptive learning could help personalize students' education and move them forward, such as introductory chemistry and accounting classes, Renick said.
Two years ago, the university hired 42 additional academic advisers, set up more than 700 alerts to warn advisers of risky student academic behavior, and reached out to those students within 48 hours. Through this grant, the university hopes to dispel the myth that these human resource and predictive analytics investments are a drain on resources, Renick said. While the additional advisers cost the university $1.6 million a year, they more than pay for themselves if they help increase the retention rate by just one point, which brings in $3 million in extra revenue.
By using the tracking system they've already invested in, Georgia State plans to analyze student financial data to help correct potential issues before they have a damaging effect. More students run out of money then flunk out, so financial risky behavior is important to catch early, Renick said.
Together, these seven universities will begin working on their plans, research and pilots on Aug. 1. And around this time next year, we'll find out what they've discovered.