Altius Education Changes Course After Accreditation Battles

9/10/13Follow @wroush

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the agreement with Altius constituted outsourcing and whether Tiffin was, in fact, in control of the Ivy Bridge curriculum.

In the end, the commission made it clear that it considered Ivy Bridge to be an unauthorized extension of Tiffin’s operations. On July 25, it ordered Tiffin to stop enrolling students in Ivy Bridge and to dissolve its relationship with Altius. The university gave in, and Altius announced on August 1 that Ivy Bridge will be shut down by October 20. (Students are being allowed to complete fall-semester courses, and Altius and Tiffin are helping them transfer their credits to Tiffin and other institutions.)

The commission’s move has put an abrupt end not just to Ivy Bridge, but to the startup’s plans for Altius University, since the action came before WASC could complete its own review.

That’s a severe blow for Altius—Freedman has already had to lay off 110 of the company’s 180 employees. But, like a biotech startup that’s been rebuffed by the FDA but still has money in the bank and other experimental drugs in its pipeline, Altius does have a fallback plan. It’s switching its focus to Helix, the platform it built to organize Ivy Bridge students’ day-to-day studies.

I described Helix in depth in an April 2012 story about Altius. Freedman says it’s designed to give instructors more room to personalize course content and student interactions than older “learning management systems” like Pearson Education’s OpenClass or the open-source system Moodle, both of which Altius tried and discarded.

For example, a professor teaching statistics to nursing students could use Helix to insert examples built around patients in hospital situations, rather than using abstract examples with less resonance for students, Freedman explained. The system also supports live tutoring sessions, collaboration between students, and adaptive learning, meaning students are given the opportunity to skip over material they already know.

Those features fit well with one of the hottest trends in instructional design, “competency-based learning,” Freedman says. He thinks established schools building their own fast-growing online degree programs—such as Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, UT, and Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH—may want to turn to Altius for software that lets students progress at their own pace. “That market will be dominated by a few well-positioned players, and we feel like we have the only natively built technology platform for the market,” Freedman says.

In essence, then, Altius is transforming itself into a software startup that will have to compete directly with Pearson Education and other vendors of online course management systems. And that could mean more downsizing, at least in the short term. “We are going to have to retrench based on being much more of a SaaS software vendor,” Freedman says. “We don’t know what the numbers need to be when the smoke clears, but it’s obviously smaller than what we needed for the growth of Ivy Bridge College, and more in line with what a software startup would need.”

But if it can support other organizations testing new online models for higher education, Altius won’t have to abandon its original mission, Freedman says.

“We are deeply unsettled about the fact that the accreditation process is preventing new, innovative entries into the market,” he says. “But there are a few organizations that already have accreditation that are innovators in their own right, and are setting up pilots, and Helix is well positioned to be a platform for those innovators. The best thing Altius can do now is to support people who already have membership in the club.”

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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