Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge Disrupts Community College Through Technology
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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.”