Northern Arizona University's Personalized Learning

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Key Takeaways

  • Personalized Learning is a self-paced, competency-based program with a high level of assessment that produces more graduates in less time and at a lower cost, since students with developmental deficiencies can take free modules to address those before admission.
  • The student experience allows students to skip lessons they already know and progress more quickly through material with which they have more familiarity, leading to a reduced cost for students and the university.  
  • The program has an interdisciplinary curriculum and no electives, and students can begin a course at any time thanks to new business processes.
  • Coaching/mentor faculty provide personal support and tutoring to facilitate each student's success in obtaining a degree through the Personalized Learning program.

Northern Arizona University (NAU) has four decades of experience serving adult students at a distance, first through Greyhound buses, planes, and automobiles; later through interactive television; and, since the mid-1990s, through online programs. The Arizona Board of Regents has as the number-one goal for their 2020 Strategic Plan: "To be nationally competitive in the percentage of Arizona's citizens with a high-quality bachelor's degree by providing affordable access through a well-coordinated and aligned system." Continuing to serve students and achieve the public policy goals of the Arizona Board of Regents and state politicians to produce more baccalaureate degree-holders in less time and at a lower cost required a radical rethinking of all facets of our methods.

Technology has finally caught up with what we have discovered about learning in the past few decades. Chief among the technologies that enable new approaches are open educational resources (OER), adaptive learning software, the bandwidth that allows most students to access full-motion video, and new methodologies for learning such as simulations and games.

Author Fred Hurst explains the advantages of providing richer resources to students.

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Innovative Personalized Learning

Northern Arizona University's Personalized Learning enables motivated students to earn a high-quality degree more efficiently and at a lower cost by customizing coursework to fit individual learning styles and previously acquired knowledge. This competency-based approach provides students with a level of personalization that is not possible in the traditional classroom.1

Personalized Learning is self-paced, and responses are customized to students' levels of mastery in a competency. When a student is unable to understand the concepts or exercises, she contacts her faculty mentor for assistance. With this assistance, the student can immediately focus on the work required to succeed. In the traditional classroom, the student becomes bored listening to content he already knows or slows down the class asking questions that the rest know (or seem to know) the answer to.

Program Characteristics

Personalized Learning is self-paced online learning with an interdisciplinary curriculum and no electives. Students may transfer in prior formal learning such as courses from other accredited institutions, CLEP (College-Level Examination Program), Advance Placement, and ACE. Coaching/mentor faculty members advise students concerning their success in the program including career options, learning skills, and life-work-study balance. In the first subscription period, the coaching/mentor faculty member talks with the student at least once per week, and after the first subscription period, at least every other week. Subject-matter mentor faculty work on-demand and one-on-one to tutor students who don't understand a concept. The student and the faculty mentor decide whether to work together via phone, computer conferencing, or e-mail. Some mentor faculty will be existing NAU faculty, while others will be hired as needed using established quality standards.

Before a student is admitted, she completes a readiness assessment to determine if she is a good candidate for Personalized Learning. The assessment provides students with feedback on whether they have the motivation and prerequisite competencies required to succeed. If the student has developmental deficiencies in math and writing skills, for example, those deficiencies are addressed in free developmental modules before the student is admitted. If he doesn't know or remember probability theory, then he completes a module on probability, not a semester-long course covering many concepts. Students might take a couple of weeks or several months to address various deficiencies, working at their own pace and at no cost to them. NAU and Pearson worked together to determine existing and new materials specific to students' needs. 

Once admitted, students complete an assessment similar to a final exam before starting any given course. If they have prior learning, they may test out of some aspects of or, in rare cases, the entire course. According to Alison Brown, associate vice president, NAU-Extended Campuses:

"It's simple. Say you've been handling the accounts for a small business for years. You know business accounting backward and forward. With Personalized Learning, you can test out of the parts of accounting where you are already competent. Before, you would have had to sit through, and pay for, unnecessary classes."

Developing Curriculum and Courses

Lead faculty deconstructed existing 3-credit-hour courses into learning outcomes and competencies and reconstructed them as interdisciplinary courses. In Brown's example, a student in the Small Business Administration degree would not take a three-credit-hour course in accounting, but would instead have accounting lessons within an interdisciplinary course on creating a business plan.

Author Hurst comments on course lengths.

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The curriculum design and development as well as the assessments are original and took about nine months per degree program to complete. No existing NAU online courses or segments were used for the interdisciplinary lessons — the interdisciplinary nature of the courses requires a tight integration of concepts. NAU recognized that the rapid development schedule would require outside support, so partnered with Pearson Learning Solutions for development. Pearson brought subject-matter experts, instructional designers, technical resources, and assessment experts to work under the guidance of the lead faculty. Pearson receives a percentage of tuition as payment for services for a three-year period or as long as the agreement is renewed. Periodic updating of courses is the responsibility of the lead faculty.

Students work through the course at their own pace, depending on their abilities and motivation. For every concept the student needs to learn, there are multiple modalities — perhaps two video lectures, a video documentary, and a simulation. Figure 1 shows an example.

figure 1
Figure 1. Screenshot of an online module

Adaptive learning systems use data from prior students to direct current students to the modality they are most likely to be successful using based on the course's characteristics and the student's prior success. The multiple modalities allow a student to continue to try to learn a required competency, which makes it less likely that a student will get stuck on a concept. The final assurance that students will learn the concept is the subject-matter mentor faculty member who tutors students individually to ensure their success. The student may request a subject-matter mentor faculty member's support, or the coaching mentor may see in their dashboard that a student has spent too much time on a task and refer the student to a subject-matter faculty mentor. Social spaces at the program, course, and lesson level ensure students interact not just with students in the same course but also with other students who have completed the course. Interim assessments, quizzes, papers, and projects provide feedback to students on their progress. Some objective feedback is immediate, while subjective feedback may take a few days to be evaluated.

Students decide when they are ready to attempt to complete the post-assessment (final exam). To complete the course they must score a minimum of 86 percent. If they fail to meet this requirement, they must go back and study the content until they again feel ready to pass the test. All students are also required to complete an internship or service learning requirement, which ensures they have the practical experience and social skills to succeed in today's workplace.

Hurst explains how internships support student learning.

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Streamlined Business Processes

The business processes for students are also simplified. Because the curriculum is self-paced, the student may start the program any day of the year. The student pays on a subscription model like Netflix, based on time rather than credit hours. Like Netflix, where the subscriber can watch as many movies as desired during the subscription period, in the Personalized Learning model the student may complete as many courses as possible in a six-month semester, which provides a financial incentive for students to progress more quickly. The program is affordable, with an all-inclusive (materials, textbooks, IT fee) cost of $2,500 per semester/subscription period.

The student receives two records of their success in the program. A traditional transcript with 3-credit-hour courses can be provided by a database crosswalk that tracks the completion of all the requirements for each original 3-hour NAU course. More concretely, the graduate will have a competency report that describes to an employer the skills directly applicable to the workplace. With a traditional transcript, the employer doesn't really know what skills a graduate has gained from taking three history courses, for example. The Personalized Learning competency report identifies the practical skills obtained from successful completion of these courses.

Three bachelor's degrees will be offered initially: small business administration, computer information technology, and liberal arts. The liberal arts degree is designed for students interested in degree completion.

Building Capacity for Implementation

In January of 2012 NAU started to build capacity for the Personalized Learning initiative. A full-time AVP for academic affairs was hired first, followed by lead faculty and staff including a program director, instructional designer, accessibility specialist, student services specialists, and additional IT staff, including coders. The student interface required 60,000 lines of code. In addition, for many NAU staff, the majority of their time was reassigned to the project during some periods or on an ongoing basis to jumpstart the program.

Status of Initiative

NAU's regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, granted our request for a substantive change in late May 2013 to offer the three competency-based degrees. Currently, although federal financial aid is not available for students, NAU has applied to the U.S Department of Education to offer Title IV financial aid for competency-based programs. The only institution approved to offer federal financial aid under current U.S. Department of Education protocols is Southern New Hampshire University.2 The process for SNHU was completed in six months, but it is expected that processing other institutions will accelerate following approval of the first institution.

In the second year of operation, three additional bachelor degrees will be offered, and by the third year we anticipate graduate degrees and certificates. Projections are for 8,000 students to enroll within the first five years.

Each program has an assessment plan that is comprehensive and granular. Rubrics have been assigned to every topic, lesson, and competency in the programs. The data on student and program results are accessed through an enterprise reporting system that informs the student and faculty mentor about progress and whether the topics and lessons are succeeding in fostering student learning. Adjustments can be made quickly to the topics and lessons to ensure student comprehension.

Hurst details the transparency and flexibility of the new processes.

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Challenges and Resolutions

Reinventing higher education for the modern age poses many challenges. Primarily, reinvention cannot easily occur as an add-on to existing systems. For Personalized Learning, a new unit within the university was developed and charged with coming up with a wholly new approach to both the curriculum and the business processes.

Student information systems need to be more flexible to fit this model, Hurst says.

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Second, current student information systems are designed for term-based (semesters/quarters) periods. No existing SIS is capable of starting students every day of the year and providing the services (financial aid, business processes, and policy administration) required for this sort of competency-based program. This issue remains as yet unresolved.

Each competency-based program must be individually approved, explains Hurst.

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Internal policies and external regulations are not friendly to innovation such as competency-based programs. Internal policies can be changed, but many departments and people within an institution are invested in current policies and would prefer to fit any innovation within those policies. For NAU, using new policies for the innovation that allowed the old policies to continue for the rest for the institution was a viable resolution. Ways to comply with external regulations such as accreditation requirements and federal financial aid rules are either under development or in place to allow competency-based programs to move forward.

Impact of Personalized Learning

All students in the Personalized Learning program have the advantage of learning at a pace that adapts to their needs — slower when they are learning something difficult and faster when the subject matter is easier. This recipe for success engages the student at a higher level and brings back the joy of learning often lost in the traditional assembly-line education system. Explains Cori Gordon, lead faculty in the Liberal Arts Program:

"Students will have the opportunity to graduate from Personalized Learning more quickly than from traditional bachelor degree programs because they are free to work at their own pace, on their own schedule. Students can dedicate their free time, whenever that may be, to their studies, and since all course work for their entire degree program is available to the students at the time of their enrollment, they can complete a lesson and move on to new coursework as quickly as they choose."

In the 2013 State of the Union address, in his proposed budget President Obama highlighted competency-based education, new accountability requirements for higher education institutions for student success, and the need to graduate more college students at a lower cost. Similar goals for student completion and accountability are in the Arizona Board of Regents' performance metrics for NAU. Personalized Learning fulfills those public policy goals as a competency-based program with a high level of ongoing program assessment while producing more graduates in less time and at a lower cost for the student, NAU, and the federal financial aid system.

  1. To learn more about Personalized Learning and other competency-based postsecondary programs, see Paul Fain, "Big Disruption, Big Questions," Inside Higher Education, April 17, 2013.
  2. College for America at Southern New Hampshire University.