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Exclusive: Desire2Learn buys Bill Gates-backed ‘virtual guidance counselor’ Degree Compass

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For most college students, picking classes involves reading up on options or chatting with classmates and professors. But, if Canadian ed tech company Desire2Learn has its way, more students will consult a data-driven “virtual guidance counselor.”

On Thursday, the company, which is a stone’s throw away from Research in Motion (s RIMM) in Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo area, announced that it acquired Degree Compass, a predictive analytics tool developed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The web-based app, created by Tristan Denley, a mathematician and provost of Tennesee’s Austin Peay State University, helps students select the courses most suited to their strengths and interests. Its algorithms consider a particular student’s transcript and test scores, as well as the performance of hundreds of thousands of previous students, to generate a personalized curriculum. The goal is to help more students actually complete their degree – and in a reduced amount of time.

“It’s almost like the way Netflix suggests movies, but instead of just suggesting classes students will enjoy, it suggests those that they’ll be able to handle and will help them get to their degree requirements,” Bill Gates said last year in a speech on the future of higher education.

According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, about half of higher education students fail to earn a degree and Complete College America reports that the average student takes 20 percent more courses than needed to meet their degree requirements.

“[We’re trying to] increase student outcomes – making sure all students have a greater ability to do well in their classes through having the right tools,” said Jeff McDowell, Desire2Learn’s VP of market development and new strategies. “This lines up perfectly with some of the things we’re working on regarding analytics.”

DegreeCompassSince launching in 1999, Desire2Learn has provided an online learning platform for K-12 and higher education schools in the U.S. and around the world. Last year, after going it alone for more than a decade, the company raised $80 million in its first round of venture financing (which was also the largest ed tech round of the year, according to CBInsights).

As Desire2Learn competes against other learning management systems like Blackboard, the company’s aim is that Degree Compass not only rounds out the suite of learning, eportfolio and analytics tools it offers current customers, but helps it reach new clients. And it highlights the growing demand for data-driven tools that can lead to outcomes.

For now, the technology could help a humanities student, for example, plan a course of study that optimizes his strengths and helps him complete a degree in the shortest amount of time. But, McDowell said, the tool is just a starting point. In time, they could add more functionality so that Degree Compass could help students identify the best courses for a particular career path, not just a degree.

Desire2Learn declined to share financial details. But it said that in addition to the technology, which is currently in use by three schools other than Austin Peay, it will add an undisclosed number of developers. Denley will remain Provost of Austin Peay but work with Desire2Learn on the Degree Compass roadmap and business development.

4 Responses to “Exclusive: Desire2Learn buys Bill Gates-backed ‘virtual guidance counselor’ Degree Compass”

  1. I think one part of higher education is that students should take responsibility for their education. In K-12, students have some choices (advanced classes or regular classes for instance and electives) but their options are rather limited. In higher ed, the more involved students are with their education the more value it will have to them. If they are unsure what a particular course teaches, they should research it and see if they are interested in taking the course. Good students take courses in which they are interested and/or figure out how to be interested in the course/material they need to learn for the degree they have chosen. Universities which use the Degree Compass system should put an asterisk by the program. It should not be used as a substitute to talking to a department advisor and/or the instructors of the courses. Those people have a wealth of knowledge about how a course could help students in their future and not just to complete a degree.

    The quote about students taking 20 percent more classes then they are required to take to completed their degrees is a rather weak supporting detail for the use of Degree Compass. Believe it or not many students take more classes on purpose for various reasons such as exploring opportunities and career paths or just for fun. College is suppose to have an element of exploration and fun. Some of these explorations end up in the student declaring a minor, a second degree, or strengthening a resume/portfolio. Not all students are in college to go from point A to point B via the shortest and cheapest path. Many if not most see the value in the experiences the college period in their life can offer.

  2. I think this relates nicely to your “reply blog” post last November to Joshua Kim. While the post wasn’t necessarily negative, it was neutral and issued a challenge. One that I believe you addressed frankly, graciously, and honestly in your response post (Nov. 15, 2012). Acquiring Degree Compass will help you continue to grow and set yourself apart from other LMS providers such as…ah hem…well you know. As an educational technology company, we agree that using student analytics is a crucial piece of the overall retention puzzle. However, I do hope that schools won’t rely solely on a new “math” to determine a student’s fate. I’d like to think this is yet another tool in the holistic approach to ensuring student placement, engagement, and overall success. Best of luck!

  3. Interesting, and no doubt useful, but the idea that success in higher education can be predicted mathematically sounds like it is based on all sorts of assumptions that deserve scrutiny.

    First, with respect to instruction, courses are taught differently by different instructors: they may assign different readings, structure assignment differently, have greater or lesser emphasis on certain assignments, focus on different concepts, etc. How could you possibly integrate those predictive insights, on an ongoing basis “mathematically” without prior knowledge of how incoming instructors will teach a course? This is particular pertinent in an age of higher eduction in which the majority of courses are taught by itinerant graduate student and non-permanent contract faculty.

    Second, the idea that success might be increased by picking the right courses algorithmically places far too little emphasis on the greatest predictor of success, which is obviously going to be the student’s commitment to learning. The costs of tuition, the need to work part-time (or even full-time as an increasing number of “full-time” students do today), and access to support resources are all strong socio-economic factors in student success.

    Third, gathering metrics based on grades and transcripts just means you perpetuate the insidiousness of credentialism – just getting a degree for the piece of paper without due concern for the skills the student is meant to acquire. Anyone who has successfully completed a degree knows that you don’t necessarily learn the most in the courses you receive the highest grades in. Sometimes it’s the tough instructors who teach you the most, even though you don’t earn the highest grades in their courses. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that more ‘bird courses’ and greater access to them will result in a higher “success rate” if your only measures of success are graduation and grades. It doesn’t ensure better learning, and isn’t that what *higher learning* is all about?