The Role of Personalized Learning in iPASS

Key Takeaways

  • iPASS projects align with the concept of personalized learning, with its goal of employing technology to tailor the experience of higher education to closely fit each learner's goals, needs, strengths, and challenges.
  • Recipients of iPASS grants plan to transform three student-facing functions: education planning, counseling and coaching, and risk targeting and intervention.
  • The institutions working to implement iPASS provide excellent examples of how colleges and universities can ensure that they fulfill the promises of new technologies for personalizing learning.

Did you ever buy a suit that looked great in the store but didn't fit correctly when you tried it on again at home? You'd spent the money, but the garment just wasn't for you. Maybe it stayed in the back of your closet, reminding you of dollars wasted and your lapse in judgment. For students, the rigid and somewhat complicated structure of higher education curricula and degree requirements, as well as the processes and procedures surrounding them, can feel like that suit: an unforgiving arrangement of elements that seems meant for somebody else, someone with a cookie-cutter set of abilities, needs, and plans.

For the institutions that received iPASS grants in September 2015, "integrated planning and advising for student success" represents an opportunity to meet students' distinctive needs in new and important ways. The iPASS work that each grantee campus is undertaking over the next three years combines substantial rethinking of its approach to advising and degree planning services with deployment of the technologies that allow that approach to transform the experience of higher education for students. Deploying these technologies also includes integrating them with other systems already in place so that all technologies interoperate seamlessly, presenting students, their advisers, and faculty with a clear picture of each student's status and path toward the completion of a degree or credential. In terms of outcomes, grantee campuses seek to retain more students in degree programs and award degrees to higher percentages of those whom they enroll. As a result of the integration of planning and advising at these campuses, students will be much more informed about their own progress and knowledgeable about seeking support as they proceed along the unique pathways that are particularly appropriate for them. Accordingly, iPASS projects have a strong relationship with the concept of personalized learning, with its goal of employing technology to tailor the experience of higher education so that it closely fits each learner's goals, needs, strengths, and challenges.

Whereas the focus of iPASS is not directly on the classroom, it has clear implications for pedagogy and for ensuring that programs and courses, as well as the support offered within both, are appropriate for each individual learner. Grantees have proposed and are now intensively planning transformations of three student-facing functions:

  • Education planning: guiding students to select courses and programs of study that are most efficient and relevant to completing a degree or credential that meets their academic goals
  • Counseling and coaching: connecting students to on- and off-campus resources and allowing students and advisors to monitor progress, provide ongoing feedback, and create personalized action plans for educational success
  • Risk targeting and intervention: enabling faculty members, advisors, administrators, and students themselves to be aware of a student's status in a course from the earliest assessment so as to promote early and effective intervention, such as making tutoring appointments or referral to other support services, that may prevent failure in or dropping of the course

When it comes to education planning, selecting the right courses and programs is central, but some students may have particular needs and concerns that extend beyond these activities. Especially for students whose needs include immediate entry into the workplace, planning for the careers they hope to launch immediately on completion of their degrees is also critical. For students with limited family resources, making decisions about student debt and other financial matters is a paramount concern. Addressing these areas will play a part in the iPASS work of Montgomery County Community College. The campus will extend its educational planning platform to encompass career and financial planning. Once MCCC has selected a career planning tool and developed a tool for financial planning, the institution will update the student dashboard to include information from both tools in a form and location readily accessible to students.

The second student-facing function, counseling and coaching, points up the critical importance for students of receiving individualized guidance from an experienced and well-informed advisor who has at her fingertips the kind of detailed and specific information about that advisee that iPASS systems can provide. This enables counseling and coaching at a level well beyond merely having enough information to help students complete registration forms. iPASS programs aim at nothing short of the transformation of the advising relationship. They seek to make it possible for all campus professionals charged with guiding student progress — whether full-time professional advisors or faculty members in departments — to operate with more actionable information and maximize the often constrained time available for individual meetings with students. For example, at Northern Arizona University, where staff and faculty pride themselves on providing a small-school feel for each of their 28,000 students, a key goal of the iPASS work is to reinforce the institution's "culture of care." To offer the personalized consultation and resources that allow each student to learn how to be successful through his or her personal lens, NAU's iPASS project will integrate the separate comment-tracking systems used previously in academic affairs and student affairs. In this way, all professionals involved in advising students will have access to the information they need to personalize their interactions with students.

New research from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, suggests that this emphasis on the personal in the advising relationship aligns closely with students' preferences. In a recent blog post on the CCRC study, Hoori Santikian Kalamkarian summarized a key finding of the research:

In focus groups, the students — 69 mostly full-timers at six colleges ranging in age from 16 to over 60 — had no objection to using technology for simple tasks like registering for classes, and appreciated the ease and convenience it provided. But we also found that many students want to talk to advisors face-to-face for more complex topics such as planning courses of study across semesters, choosing majors, and considering career paths.

When iPASS systems enable advisors and students to access basic information that can be confidently reviewed in advance, the limited and highly valuable time in advising appointments can be devoted to those more complex topics where, according to the CCRC study, students most feel the need for help and support.

Risk targeting and intervention, the third student-facing function of iPASS, relies on the sophisticated analytics possible in today's systems and on using what can be gleaned from those analytics proactively to engage — immediately — those students who appear to be getting off track and steer them to the advice and resources that will allow them to proceed to successful course and degree completion. Analytics, combining as it does large stores of data with statistical modeling, may not seem particularly personal. Yet it can enable an institution to gather detailed information about each student's progress and the likelihood of success in a course or program. For an advisor who has this kind of information readily accessible, it becomes possible to communicate proactively with individual students or just those students most in need of support at any particular moment and assist them with getting exactly the resources and supports they need, whether it be tutoring, meeting with a faculty member, or referral to specialized student services. Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, for instance, where Starfish EARLY ALERT is part of the technology deployed in the first phase of iPASS, added an outreach component based on leading indicators such as classroom performance and behavior-based flags instead of relying solely on reactive, lagging indicators such as midterm grades. In a spring 2015 student survey, 75 percent of student respondents indicated that "kudos" (customized positive notifications from faculty members that indicate successful progress to a student) help motivate them, 64 percent said flags help motivate them, and 58 percent said they connected with the services they needed because of the alerts from Starfish. As Northeast Wisconsin Technical College noted in its successful iPASS proposal, the early-alert technology allows staff to help students make better-informed individual decisions about financial funding, registration, and education planning choices.

Another way in which analytics can make students' learning more personalized is the predictive aspect. Advisors with access to more sophisticated predictive models have the potential to share with students the option of moving to courses or even programs in which they might have a better chance of positive outcomes. For instance, Middle Tennessee State University leverages predictive modeling to help advisors target groups of students who would benefit from more focused outreach. The institution was an early adopter of SSC (Student Success Collaborative) from the Education Advisory Board and after adopting it saw persistence rates increase by 2.5 percentage points for freshmen and 4.1 points for transfer students compared to the previous year. Although these increases cannot be attributed solely to the use of predictive models, they certainly indicate that the use of such models can contribute to increases in persistence.

In a trend worth following over the coming years of the iPASS grants, a large number of grantees will be implementing predictive analytics in support of their advising transformation. No two students have identical interests and needs. Enabling more students to finish courses and earn degrees requires that the learning materials offered to them in their courses — as well as the advice and support they receive about completing those courses and the programs that the courses support — be as individual as they are. The institutions working to implement iPASS provide excellent examples for the rest of higher education about exactly how colleges and universities can make sure that the promises of new technologies for personalizing learning are fulfilled.


Nancy Millichap is a program officer with the EDUCAUSE initiative Next Generation Learning Challenges, which makes grants aimed at dramatically increasing college readiness and completion through applied technology. Before joining EDUCAUSE in 2011, she worked at the intersection of technology and learning in several other contexts: the humanities division at Dartmouth College, colleges and universities in Indiana collaborating to use data networks in the early days of online courses, small colleges in the Midwest sharing instructional technology resources, and liberal arts colleges nationally integrating professional development for faculty and staff to use technology effectively in the academic program. She completed her undergraduate degree in education at Shippensburg University and received an MA in English from Middlebury College.

Ana Borray is the director for iPASS Implementation Services at EDUCAUSE. She has over 35 years of higher education experience, mostly focused on using technology to transform how institutions can positively impact student success. Borray was part of the executive team at Starfish Retention Solutions, where she lead the service division, focusing efforts on helping institutions deploy new technology with measurable outcomes directly tied to student retention and completion. She also held leadership positions at Datatel (now part of Ellucian), Barry University in Miami, Florida, and Columbia University, New York. She earned an MA in Educational Administration from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a BBA from Florida International University. She also completed an Executive Program in Leading Professional Services at Harvard University.

© 2016 Nancy Millichap and Ana Borray. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.