Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge Disrupts Community College Through Technology

3/2/11Follow @wroush

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which are most replicable in other contexts. When I asked Freedman whether Altius had studied student success rates in a scientific way, I got a surprising answer. “That’s not really our job,” he said. “Our job is to have better results.” He’s apparently convinced that the online element, the success coaching, the growth mindset, and the articulation agreements are parts of an indivisible package. “If other people want to pick and choose the components we are doing and figure out which ones are providing impact, that’s fine, but we’re not going to be the ones to do that,” he says.

Altius is, however, gathering data on the students who still aren’t graduating or transferring to a four-year school. “We are not successful for 40 percent of the students who start with us, and even though that’s way better than the industry averages, it’s not great, and in my opinion we need to do better,” Freedman says. The leading reasons why students drift away from Ivy Bridge, he says, are family problems, job changes, and—perhaps most surprising—technology challenges. “We can teach a lot of things very quickly, but if they don’t have the skills to navigate a browser, it’s hard to teach those. That is a prerequisite concept,” says Freedman.

Also, some students simply don’t have the computer and Web access they need to succeed with online coursework. “If you ask a student ‘Do you have a computer?’ they will say yes, when they really mean that their brother 10 miles down the road has a computer,” Freedman says. “That doesn’t mean they can be on it 15 hours a week. We lose students that way.”

But there could be an elegant solution to that problem. Freedman says Altius is working on plans to supply every Ivy Bridge student with an inexpensive, Google Chrome-based notebook computer that would arrive pre-loaded with all the browser bookmarks, e-textbooks, and course materials they need for the semester. “We are not there yet, but it really is getting to the point where the cost of the technology is not the barrier,” Freedman says. As bandwidth and memory get cheaper, he says, Altius will also be able to experiment with richer forms of online instruction.

I put it to Freedman that if students have to maintain a certain GPA to take advantage of the automatic admission to the partner four-year schools, and if the best schools have higher GPA requirements, it might create an incentive for professors to inflate students’ grades, in order to increase Ivy Bridge’s overall transfer rate. He acknowledges that grade inflation is a danger—but says the company is working on a deterrent. “At a high level if we send a student to a partner university who is not ready for the academic rigor of their program we could lose the university as a partner,” Freedman says. “That creates a solid institutional incentive to help students learn, not just pass them on to a school where they will drop out. That said, I think the combined tasks of teaching and grading is a conflict of interest. A teacher is supposed to affect the gathering of knowledge; it is impossible to judge how well they are doing if they also assess the level of knowledge.  To combat this problem we are moving towards a model where teaching and grading are handled by different people.”

Over the next 18 months, Freedman wants to grow Ivy Bridge from its current enrollment of 1,800 to the 5,000 mark, and within three to five years, he thinks it can grow to 30,000. In the big picture, Freedman thinks there are hundreds of thousands of students who could benefit from technology that, as he puts it, “narrows the intent-success gap in higher education.” The Ivy Bridge model might even carry over to four-year institutions, Freedman says, where much of the general-education instruction that fills the first two years could easily be offloaded to an online platform, freeing more faculty to concentrate on teaching more advanced third- and fourth-year courses in specific majors. And the success coaching might help to increase four-year colleges’ retention rates.

But all of that is still in the future. “We look at ourselves as the Netflix of education,” Freedman sums up. It may not sound at first like a flattering metaphor, but he explains it this way: “Netflix knew from the beginning that they wanted to stream content over the Internet. But they were the only ones smart enough to realize that the current market was about sorting DVDs, and that if you could win that, you would be the one in position to innovate on new models. We are very much doing the same thing. We’re innovating around the edges of the current problem and providing a meaningfully better experience—and hoping that puts us in a position to be more disruptive.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Milan Moravec

    Regretably University of California Chancellor Birgeneau is an ‘altius’ leader. He believes he is above it all and does what he wishes, consequences be dammed. Just how widespread is the budget crisis at University of California Berkeley? University of California Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau’s ($500,000 salary) eight-year fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving him every dollar he has asked for, and the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.
    A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies in the system and then crafting a plan to fix them. Competent oversight by the Board of Regents and the legislature would have required him to provide data on problems and on what steps he was taking to solve them. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, and the problems just piled up to $150 million of inefficiencies….until there was no money left.
    It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies in the system. Faculty and staff have raised issues with senior management, but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) engaged some expensive ($3 million) consultants, Bain & Company, to tell him what he should have been able to find out from the bright, engaged people in his own organization.
    In short, there is plenty of blame to go around. Merely cutting out inefficiencies will not have the effect desired. But you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. An opportunity now exists for the UC President, Chairman of the UC Board of Regents Gould, California Legislators to jolt Cal back to life, applying some simple oversight check-and-balance management practices. Increasing the budget is not enough; transforming senior management is necessary. The faculty, Academic Senate, Cal. Alumni, financial donors, benefactors await Cal senior management’s transformation.

    UC Berkeley public reprimand, censure: NCAA places Chancellor Birgeneau’s men’s basketball program on probation
    The author,who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way senior management work.
    (UC Berkeley ranking tumbles from 2nd best. The reality of UC Berkeley relative decline is clear. In 2004, for example, the London-based Times Higher Education ranked UC Berkeley the second leading research university in the world, just behind Harvard; in 2009 that ranking had tumbled to 39th place. By 2011 the ranking had not returned to 2nd best)

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