Companies Promise ‘Personalized Education’ (Chronicle)

September 15, 2014

By Goldie Blumenstyk

This year students at Colorado State University will have their progress toward degrees tracked by technology from a company called CollegeSource. The likelihood of their encountering academic difficulty will be flagged for academic advisers and resident advisers by an online product from a company called Campus Labs. And they will receive text alerts about unsatisfactory grades via a mobile app from yet another ed-tech company, Ellucian.

Students in three majors will also be assessed on their chances of succeeding in a course, on the basis of an analysis of data from thousands of previous Colorado State students who had earned the same grades, thanks to technology from the Education Advisory Board. Meanwhile, intercollegiate athletes who skip too many classes will be notified through Facebook by a company called GradesFirst that they’ve been scheduled for tutoring. And all these arrangements don’t even reflect an experiment in evaluating student progress in courses, using an analytics tool sold by Blackboard. The university ditched the experiment in the spring after realizing that professors weren’t using the learning-management system uniformly for that purpose.

Colorado State, with 27,000 students, has become a test bed for an array of companies selling “personalized education” products. But its reliance on so many vendors has happened more by necessity than intention. “We realized no one system is the answer,” says Gaye DiGregorio, executive director of the university’s Center for Advising and Student Achievement. “When we started this, that’s what we were looking for.”

Though campus officials are confident about the potential for improving student learning through the use of these products, which cost more than $900,000 a year, they are also frustrated. “It’s not as streamlined or as smooth as we would like it,” says Ms. DiGregorio.

Campuswide student-information systems became commonplace in the 1990s, while learning-management systems dominated the IT scene in the early 2000s. Today in ed tech, the era of personalized education is taking hold. Along with established companies, like Blackboard and Ellucian, that offer personalized-learning products, the field includes dozens of companies backed by hundreds of millions in investments.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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