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5/10/2013
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Desire2Learn Predicts Students' Best Classes

Latest edition of learning management system makes educational recommendations "like Netflix," while giving early warning on struggling students.

Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
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What do you get when you cross learning software with predictive analysis more often seen in movie rental sites? You might get something like the latest release of learning management system (LMS) Desire2Learn.

The upgrade, released last week, brings predictive analytics to both students and instructors, says Desire2Learn. For students, it offers Amazon.com-style "if you liked that course, you'll probably like this course" recommendations to help them choose classes they are most likely to succeed in. For instructors, it offers feedback on which students are in trouble.

One of the leading vendors of LMS software, Desire2Learn has been one of the beneficiaries of the surge in investment in educational technologies, picking up $80 million in funding in September. It also has been one of the pioneers in using analytics to improve educational outcomes.

[ Business data coming out your ears? Read Big Data Professors Want Your Data Sets. ]

Desire2Learn also has been focusing attention on the analytic needs of school administrators. For example, Daytona State College's performance improvement program is using Desire2Learn analytics partly to help it maintain its accreditation.

In January, Desire2Learn acquired Degree Compass, a program designed by Tristan Denley, provost of Austin Peay State University (APSU), in Tennessee, with the goal of improving graduation rates and improving retention by helping students choose courses. The software has proven 90% accurate in predicting whether students will pass a course, according to Desire2Learn.

APSU, which has been using the system the longest, has been able to show that students who use the software when picking classes saw a statistically significant 1.4% performance improvement. Subpopulations such as African-American students and Pell Grant recipients showed a larger effect, 2.1% and 3.9%, respectively.

This shows that "creating an online component of a brick-and-mortar course is very important -- it gives us the data to analyze and allows them to get the data back," Desire2Learn VP of marketing and business development Jeff McDowell said in an interview. The result is "almost a Netflix experience" where the software knows enough about you to make intelligent recommendations, he said.

Although the original Degree Compass application focused on guiding students, Desire2Learn is extending it with a module for instructors called the Student Success System, which provides predictive data visualizations that compare and contrast at-risk learners with their peers. Here, the goal is to allow the instructor to intervene early and change the predicted outcome.

Desire2Learn's analytic dashboard for students
Desire2Learn's analytic dashboard for student performance.

"We're providing teachers with tools that allow them to look at students in their courses individually," McDowell said. "In a large class, it's really tough to manage the individual needs of all the different students. This will allow an instructor to really work closely to the people who might be at risk of failing a course. At the same time, there might be three or four people in the course who should be accelerated because you want to keep them challenged, keep them engaged."

Then there are all the people in the middle who shouldn't be ignored. "This lets you have a personal, individualized teaching plan for everyone in the course -- not just selected individuals, but the whole class," said McDowell.

Some of the excitement about applying analytics to education focuses on adaptive learning software that autonomously adjusts to each student in the most effective way. Desire2Learn's approach is different: it provides the analytics to a teacher, who can then make informed decisions about how to alter a student's learning plan, McDowell said. "D2L's position is that if you remove the human element, you're missing out on a lot of the experiential element of learning."

In addition to the new analytics, the platform update also includes improvements to the mobile client. In addition, Desire2Learn is expanding its ePortfolio solution, which lets students create an online, interactive resume showcasing their educational achievements and archiving digital work products. The new version, which works with the myDesire2Learn portal, will be an "ePortfolio for Life" that students retain access to after graduation, including 2 gigabytes of free storage.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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