The Billion-Dollar Bet on an Adaptive Learning Platform

Update (2/15/13): Per Apollo Group, the billion-dollar investment mentioned in the Chronicle article (quoted below) refers to total infrastructure – not just the learning platform itself. The total infrastructure includes new CRM, portal, and administrative systems.

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Earlier this week I wrote about the new patent awarded to the University of Phoenix (the for-profit institution owned by the Apollo Group) for the activity stream within their new online learning platform. The patent gives us a glimpse into a billion-dollar bet that Phoenix is making on this next-generation LMS that will power their move into adaptive learning.

The University of Phoenix has always been known for using a homegrown LMS, which is understandable given the large size (360,000 students) of the school. In 2009, Phoenix began investing in a completely new learning platform as part of the “Learning Genome Project”. While the company has traditionally been reluctant to describe its internal systems, starting with the 2010 EDUCAUSE conference Phoenix began sharing more information on this project.

The promise of adaptive learning

Steve Kolowich at Inside Higher Ed wrote an article on the new learning platform in October 2010 based on information shared by Phoenix’s Director of Data Innovation.

Where Facebook has shown unique value is as a data-gathering tool. Never has a website been able to learn so much about its users. And that is where higher education should be taking notes, said Angie McQuaig, director of data innovation at the University of Phoenix, at the 2010 Educause conference on Friday.

The trick, she said, is individualization. Facebook lets users customize their experiences with the site by creating profiles and curating the flow of information coming through their “news feeds.” In the same motion, the users volunteer loads of information about themselves. [snip]

This is where the University of Phoenix is headed with its online learning platform. In an effort ambitiously dubbed the “Learning Genome Project,” the for-profit powerhouse says it is building a new learning management system (or LMS) that gets to know each of its 400,000 students [ed. now reduced to 360,000] personally and adapts to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of their “learning DNA.”

The article goes on to describe the Phoenix vision of adaptive learning powered by the learning platform, stating that data analytics is going to kill the standardized curriculum dominant in higher education.

Additional insight was provided in a February 2011 article by Josh Keller in the Chronicle that further described the scope and approach of the learning platform development.

Two years ago, leaders at the University of Phoenix decided that its software for students was outdated. So it hired tech-industry heavyweights from Yahoo and elsewhere, installed a team of more than 100 people here in San Francisco, and gave them free rein to rebuild the college’s online-learning environment from scratch.

The team created a social network that borrows heavily from Facebook. It developed a data platform that collects and analyzes billions of clicks, messages, and interactions among students and their instructors. And it started profiling students’ online behavior to personalize how they are taught. [snip]

When students log in, they see recommended tasks for that day and a personalized discussion feed that resembles one pioneered by Facebook. They can see who else is online and chat with other students and instructors.

One goal is to better help students find the right people among Phoenix’s vast network who are online and could help them learn, says Michael White, Apollo’s chief technology officer. “My faculty member’s not online, but 700 faculty members who teach the same thing are online, so it’s really the power of the network,” he says.

The billion-dollar bet

How serious is Phoenix about this approach? Quite serious, as the university appears to be making a billion-dollar bet on personalized learning directly powered by this new learning platform.

The Chronicle covered the Phoenix announcement from October 2012 that they would close 115 locations, including this mind-boggling statement:

Mr. Brenner [senior vice president for corporate communications and external affairs at the Apollo Group] said Apollo was investing $1-billion in a new online-learning management system [ed – see below].

Update (2/15/13): The billion-dollar investment is total infrastructure and not just on the learning platform.

Not all of the investment is pure development as it includes the 2011 acquisition of Carnegie Learning for $75 million. From the press release:

The acquisitions allow Apollo to accelerate its efforts to incorporate adaptive learning into its academic platform and to provide tools to help raise student achievement in mathematics, which supports improved retention and graduation rates.

‘We are excited to partner with Carnegie Learning, which will allow us to integrate their high quality educational and adaptive learning technology into our platform,’ said Gregory Cappelli, Co-CEO of Apollo Group and Chairman of Apollo Global.”

The full significance of the University of Phoenix bet on adaptive learning platforms goes beyond pure dollars and became clear when the school announced the closure of 115 of its 240 locations. The stated usage of the savings from campus closures is primarily to further invest in the platform as described by the Phoenix Business Journal.

The $300 million in savings will be used to invest more heavily in the company’s online learning platform as well as renovating and modernizing Apollo’s existing 112 locations.

“This decision is in direct response to student demand to what students have told us and demonstrated what they want,” Clark said.

The potential for a new learning platform in the marketplace

This is a massive investment in a next-generation LMS, and there are clear signs that Phoenix does not plan to merely use the system for internal use. In October 2011 the Chronicle reported on Phoenix’s potential plans to sell their services including access to this learning platform. Perhaps the real intent of the patent is to protect intellectual property for a system that they plan to license and sell. From the Chronicle.

Facing new regulations and slowing enrollment for their degree programs, companies like the Apollo Group, parent of the University of Phoenix, are quietly developing or expanding other educational services that they could sell to nonprofit colleges and corporations, moves that could signal the future direction of the for-profit college industry.

Among other things, that means it might not be long before the Apollo Group seeks out other colleges as customers for the electronic learning platform it has spent years and millions of dollars developing. A company spokesman said licensing that platform to other colleges is one of the many options its new Apollo Educational Services division is exploring. Although the entire Phoenix student body won’t be fully on the new platform until spring, Apollo has been inviting higher-education leaders to its San Francisco development center to show off the new system for the past several months.

“We’d love to partner with existing educational institutions. We’d love to partner with global companies,” says Mark Brenner, Apollo’s senior vice president for external affairs.

What we might be seeing soon is the release of a billion-dollar adaptive online learning platform available to other companies and institutions. But what is the reality and does the patent award give indications of the limits of big data in education? I’ll explore those questions in my next post.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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4 Responses to The Billion-Dollar Bet on an Adaptive Learning Platform

  1. The Adjacent Possible of an Adaptive Learning Platform from the University of Phoenix

    I am very intrigued by the University of Phoenix Adaptive Learning Platform that Phil Hill wrote about, but have reservations that “data analytics is going to kill the standardized curriculum dominant in higher education.” That assumption seems predicated on an opinion that an environment could replace, rather than merely enhance self directed learning. Ultimately, I think self directed learning has a limit, an adjacent possible.

    Out-of-the-gate, adaptive learning poses hurdles to a learner framed in one or two manners, it can evolve with time and continuous improvement but often times initial arrangement is too elementary (think of trying to setup a system to automatically graded a fill-in-the-blank question; there are numerous ways one can construct a response of “22222.23 mL” in a string, inclusion for scientific notation, variations of expressing units, and so forth). Similarly, users can hit a roadblock when posed with two iterations of a question and need guidance that an adaptive system could not provide.

    I find that adaptive technology is not always relevant and presently, is too slow, it is too far behind “what is now.” Facebook, which has “learned about me” and solicits posts it thinks I want to read often is bringing up popular content amongst my social graph, however popular does not translate into relevant. My true interests are much more narrow than my social graph and I could care less about the majority of social gossip, click bait, and hollow grandstanding that encompasses the most interaction on the Facebook. I actually have to tailor the experience on the system quite a bit just to drown out the noise. I had an easier time chronologically navigating through content in the initial configuration because I had an inherent logical control for that noise. More importantly, curated content is too slow, just look at Flipboard. Things surface by what is popular, and what is popular takes accumulation and time. If I want new, breaking information in technology, my best bet is to go to a human edited curation site like Techmeme, not wait for Flipboard to tell me what is automatically curated by popularity.

    My worry about dependence on an Adaptive Learning Platform is that often times, true understanding comes from radically different proposals of others rooted in experiences outside of a framed context. I believe that we will still need to rely heavily on SMEs who have established experience to frame rationale and theory in culturally relevant and socially iterative frameworks. Beyond simply establishing an Adaptive Learning Platform, it is equally important to foster environments where learners can grow on their own as it is to be able to provide personalized insight rooted in experience, both with regard to the problem and the context.

    The adjacent possible is human edited curation. We still need our SMEs to tell us what is important, frame it in the experience of the field, root it in the context of life, and simply recognize a disconnect that would constitute a series of variables at-present, only the human brain is capable of accumulating, analyzing, and adjusting for to reach desired outcomes. The Adaptive Learning Platform is next, but it will take many iterations, time, and close care by SME’s monitoring outcomes to achieve independence. Data analytics will be transformitive, but we learn in context, from those we care about and relate to, and in experience, there is still a very human element.

    Cheers,
    -Mark Gbur
    @thestaticfrost

  2. This project will bomb. All good developers know you need five or less people and a safe space to iterate. Expensive projects by large bureaucracies almost always fail.

  3. Phil Hill says:

    Mark, your points are well taken, and if you have not done so, I strongly recommend reading Michael’s post: http://mfeldstein.com/why-big-data-mostly-cant-help-improve-teaching/

    The one issue take is your meta-assumption that “That assumption [big data to replace standardized curriculum] seems predicated on an opinion that an environment could replace, rather than merely enhance self directed learning.” Look at the work starting at San Jose State, where they’re taking an edX MOOC, and applying it to a flipped classroom. Also look at some of the implementations of Knewton. These efforts are looking to enhance self-directed learning, or at least small-group-directed learning. I don’t believe every big-data / adaptive learning approach is looking to replace rather than enhance.

    And my descriptions are not to say that these efforts (specifically Phoenix’s) will succeed. I’m describing their attempts and the massive scope involved.

    Thanks for comment.

  4. Phil Hill says:

    Michael, their effort certainly does go against the grain of agile development and small-team innovation theories. It will be interesting to watch.

    When I get time, I plan to analyze more on the results we’re starting to see, which might shed light on whether the project will bomb or not. I would note ahead of time, however, that their promised deployment of the platform has already changed dates and the renewed investment might indicate some challenges.

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