At Altius’s Online College, Students Will Learn Through Stories

4/19/12Follow @wroush

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demonstrated mastery of prerequisite material. That’s half of the solution—but only half, Freedman says. “One of the reasons why learning is not as engaging online is that we are either teaching stuff students already know, or that they can’t possibly learn because they don’t have the prerequisite knowledge, so we agree with [competency-based learning],” he says. “But we think it’s only one possible form of the personalization that can happen online.”

Another important form of personalization, Freedman says, is storyboarding: framing every piece of the curriculum within a context that helps to make its relevance clear. Take the example of a statistics class designed for nursing students. It’s a required course in most nursing programs, but it also has one of the highest failure rates. “It turns out that if you use patients in the examples”—instead of dice or other more abstract cases—”it resonates with them and they learn it much better,” says Freedman. Similarly, for a class teaching sports management students how to use Microsoft Excel, the instructional designers at Altius might base the examples around somebody who’s using the spreadsheet software to manage their fantasy football team. Through storyboarding, Freedman says, Altius is trying to answer the questions “Why do I need to learn this? Why is it important for my life?”

For students who find that they’re stuck on a certain concept, Helix offers additional forms of personal engagement, such as live tutoring sessions with online instructors using digital whiteboards, screen sharing, and audio connections, and Quora-like forums where students can ask their peers for help. The whole Helix platform is designed in a modular way that allows course designers to add “learning widgets,” such as a flash-card widget for tasks that require memorization. There’s also a “critical thinking” widget building on the old Internet tradition of threaded discussions. Students look through a series of comments and evaluate whether each one is a contradiction of an earlier point, an extension the original argument, or a non sequitur. The idea is to “measure somebody’s ability to make an argument and taxonomize other responses,” says Freedman.

Many instructors in the online education world say they spend as much time grading as they do teaching. To make that load more manageable—and to make sure Altius University can eventually accommodate hundreds of thousands of students—the startup has built tools Freedman calls “rubrics.” For instructors grading an essay-based exam, for example, there might be rubrics covering content development, organization, style, grammar, and mechanics. The rubrics “tell you what you are supposed to be grading for,” says Freedman. “By clicking on a few descriptions, you can provide a lot of feedback, cutting down on the time in grading but not on the feedback a student gets.”

Freedman says his team has been sweating the details of design as well as software. He says it’s important that the Helix interface, which is entirely Web-based, have the right look and feel, he says. “Students are going in with a lot of emotional charge. They go to college because they want a better life, so this is a big thing. You can go wrong in terms of the visual experience either by making to too cute or too institutional.” In the version going into beta testing this week, the Helix screens have a clean, understated look, with steel blue and parchment beige as the dominant colors, and lots of visuals to offset the text. Freedman says the startup is going for a look that’s “substantial and modern.”

Once accreditation boards clear Altius University to begin offering classes—which could happen as early as this fall—the startup will branch out beyond junior college curricula for the first time, offering four-year bachelor’s programs in a handful of fields. The first programs offered, appropriately enough, will be in areas like online teaching and online interaction assessment—with Altius itself as a potential job provider for graduates, according to Freedman. “We are taking a teacher college mentality,” he says. “Teacher colleges exist to train people how to be teachers. It’s hard, it’s a big market, and it’s a special pathway where we can be the best in the market.”

Altius is already hiring fast. More than 50 of the company’s 180 employees have joined in the last year, with software engineers, needed to build out the Helix platform’s Ruby on Rails back end, and instructional designers, needed to storyboard more courses, as the bulk of the new hires. While getting Ivy Bridge College off the ground was a key step in the startup’s evolution, says Freedman, his ambition was always to build something even bigger—a system that would disrupt both traditional universities and the online education market by offering more engaging classes with higher completion rates. “This is unveiling what our plans were from the beginning,” he says. “Our success from here will be judged on how well we pull it off.”

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

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