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 demonstrated mastery of prerequisite material. That’s half of the solution—but only half, Freedman says. “One of the reasons why learning is not as engaging online is that we are either teaching stuff students already know, or that they can’t possibly learn because they don’t have the prerequisite knowledge, so we agree with [competency-based learning],” he says. “But we think it’s only one possible form of the personalization that can happen online.”

Another important form of personalization, Freedman says, is storyboarding: framing every piece of the curriculum within a context that helps to make its relevance clear. Take the example of a statistics class designed for nursing students. It’s a required course in most nursing programs, but it also has one of the highest failure rates. “It turns out that if you use patients in the examples”—instead of dice or other more abstract cases—“it resonates with them and they learn it much better,” says Freedman. Similarly, for a class teaching sports management students how to use Microsoft Excel, the instructional designers at Altius might base the examples around somebody who’s using the spreadsheet software to manage their fantasy football team. Through storyboarding, Freedman says, Altius is trying to answer the questions “Why do I need to learn this? Why is it important for my life?”

For students who find that they’re stuck on a certain concept, Helix offers additional forms of personal engagement, such as live tutoring sessions with online instructors using digital whiteboards, screen sharing, and audio connections, and Quora-like forums where students can ask their peers for help. The whole Helix platform is designed in a modular way that allows course designers to add “learning widgets,” such as a flash-card widget for tasks that require memorization. There’s also a “critical thinking” widget building on the old Internet tradition of threaded discussions. Students look through a series of comments and evaluate whether each one is a contradiction of an earlier point, an extension the original argument, or a non sequitur. The idea is to “measure somebody’s ability to make an argument and taxonomize other responses,” says Freedman.

Many instructors in the online education world say they spend as much time grading as they do teaching. To make that load more manageable—and to make sure Altius University can eventually accommodate hundreds of thousands of students—the startup has built tools Freedman calls “rubrics.” For instructors grading an essay-based exam, for example, there might be rubrics covering content development, organization, style, grammar, and mechanics. The rubrics “tell you what you are supposed to be grading for,” says Freedman. “By clicking on a few descriptions, you can provide a lot of feedback, cutting down on the time in grading but not on the feedback a student gets.”

Freedman says his team has been sweating the details of design as well as software. He says it’s important that the Helix interface, which is entirely Web-based, have the right look and feel, he says. “Students are going in with a lot of emotional charge. They go to college because they want a better life, so this is a big thing. You can go wrong in terms of the visual experience either by making to too cute or too institutional.” In the version going into beta testing this week, the Helix screens have a clean, understated look, with steel blue and parchment beige as the dominant colors, and lots of visuals to offset the text. Freedman says the startup is going for a look that’s “substantial and modern.”

Once accreditation boards clear Altius University to begin offering classes—which could happen as early as this fall—the startup will branch out beyond junior college curricula for the first time, offering four-year bachelor’s programs in a handful of fields. The first programs offered, appropriately enough, will be in areas like online teaching and online interaction assessment—with Altius itself as a potential job provider for graduates, according to Freedman. “We are taking a teacher college mentality,” he says. “Teacher colleges exist to train people how to be teachers. It’s hard, it’s a big market, and it’s a special pathway where we can be the best in the market.”

Altius is already hiring fast. More than 50 of the company’s 180 employees have joined in the last year, with software engineers, needed to build out the Helix platform’s Ruby on Rails back end, and instructional designers, needed to storyboard more courses, as the bulk of the new hires. While getting Ivy Bridge College off the ground was a key step in the startup’s evolution, says Freedman, his ambition was always to build something even bigger—a system that would disrupt both traditional universities and the online education market by offering more engaging classes with higher completion rates. “This is unveiling what our plans were from the beginning,” he says. “Our success from here will be judged on how well we pull it off.”

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

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