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New Learning Platform from the University of Phoenix

In an effort ambitiously dubbed the “Learning Genome Project,” the for-profit powerhouse says it is building a new learning interface that gets to know each of its 400,000 students personally and adapts to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of their “learning DNA.”

Unlike analog forms of student profiling—such as surveys, which are only as effective as the students’ ability to diagnose their own learning needs—Phoenix’s Learning Genome Project will be designed to infer details about students from how they behave in the online classroom . . . If students grasp content more quickly when they learn it from a video than when they have to read a text, the system will feed them more videos. If a student is bad at interpreting graphs, the system will recognize that and present information accordingly—or connect the student with another Phoenix student who is better at graph-reading. The idea is to take the model of personal attention now only possible in the smallest classrooms and with the most responsive professors, make it even more perceptive and precise, and scale it to the largest student body in higher education.

. . . [I]n order to make the platform as flexible as it needs to be, Phoenix plans to phase out its current in-house learning management system and build the new one with open-source tools. It even plans to share some (but not all) of what it builds with other institutions . . .

Being so attentive for all its students at once will require a lot of data processing; whether the system—as Phoenix envisions it—can work reliably at scale remains to be seen. In any case . . . it will be expensive to make. And then there are the inevitable privacy issues: Some Facebook users have become more guarded in recent years about the personal data they feed the system due to concerns about how that data might be used; one could imagine a similar backlash against an online learning platform built on the same principles. A for-profit company that collects data not only on what students like but also on how their minds work might make some people uneasy. (. . . Phoenix is committed to “ethical use of the data” and letting students choose how much information they submit.)

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