At Altius’s Online College, Students Will Learn Through Stories

Altius Education, the San Francisco startup that launched the two-year online junior college called Ivy Bridge, now hopes to blossom into a full-fledged, four-year institution called Altius University. And to prepare the way, it’s rolling out a new software platform designed to improve education through “the power of stories.”

Paul Freedman, Altius’ founder and CEO, revealed the new platform yesterday at Arizona State University’s Education Innovation Summit in Scottsdale, AZ. It’s called Helix, and is intended not only to replace the open-source Moodle learning environment currently offered to Ivy Bridge students, but to serve as the backbone for the new university, which is currently being evaluated for accreditation by regulators.

Freedman gave Xconomy an early look at the Helix platform last week. He says Moodle and other learning management systems used by online education companies “are all based on 1999 technology and don’t allow for the level of personalization that you see everywhere else on the Web today.” With Helix—which is currently in beta testing and will be used for actual Ivy Bridge classes starting this August—Altius has set out to build a system that will engage students better by structuring lessons around the real-world scenarios in which knowledge is used.

For an online class about digital photography, for example, students would be led through a scenario in which a sports photographer is getting ready for an actual shoot at a basketball game. “We believe that every student has a story, and that the way to actually engage students is to articulate the content they have to learn and the tests they have to take through those stories,” Freedman says. “The concept of memorizing facts and equations is completely alien to the way our brains work. We want to reintroduce the power of stories in education.”

Freedman founded in Altius in 2007 and has rounded up almost $27 million in venture capital from Maveron, Spark Capital, and Charles River Ventures. The company’s original proposition, as I reported in a March 2011 profile, was to combat the attrition problem at community colleges. Only about 20 percent of students who sign up for two-year programs ever transfer to a four-year university to complete their bachelor’s degree. Altius’s solution was Ivy Bridge College, an online degree program designed in association with Tiffin University in Tiffin, OH. Since it opened in August 2008, Ivy Bridge has attracted 3,000 students, who—if they finish with a sufficiently high GPA—are guaranteed admission to one of 132 four-year universities with which Altius has transfer agreements.

“We still think that Ivy Bridge is the heart of our mission,” says Freedman. “We are marching toward the 5,000-student mark and we think that the sky is the limit.” In fact, Freedman is convinced that demand for more effective online education programs is so great that Tiffin’s faculty—who teach most of the classes offered by Ivy Bridge—won’t be able to handle the load. That’s why Altius has been designing its own degree programs. Pending regulatory approval from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the U.S. Department of Education, it will begin offering classes on its own under the name Altius University.

Building a custom learning management system is key to that effort, Freedman says. The system is designed, in part, to make online teaching more scalable by giving instructors efficient yet still personalized ways to offer assistance and evaluations to their students. Says Freedman, “What takes the shackles off, in terms of our growth rate, is the full deployment of Helix across our whole curriculum.”

Enrollment at online colleges in the U.S. is growing rapidly—it surpassed 6 million in 2011, up from 5.6 million in 2010 and 4.6 million the year before that, according to a consortium funded by the Sloan Foundation. But the embarrassing and unspoken fact about most online higher education, according to Freedman, is that it just isn’t as effective as classroom teaching. It’s not that online students aren’t comprehending the material—it’s that they have a harder time making it through a whole course of study. “Most of the studies show that if a student completes a program, they learn just as much, but the dropout rate is higher, the time to complete is higher,” says Freedman. “There is something about these environments that is not creating the right level of engagement.”

Freedman thinks that “something” is the lack of personalization in today’s leading course management platforms. When I first talked with Altius last year, the company was already in the process of switching from a course management system built by Pearson Education to Moodle, an open-source system introduced in 2002 by Australian educator Martian Dougiamas. But Freedman says this system didn’t really meet the company’s needs, either.

A better system would need to do at least two things, Freedman says. In the edutech world these days, a concept called “adaptive competency-based learning” is all the rage; under this approach, students learn at their own rate, and are only exposed to new material once they’ve … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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