NAU awarded $1 million grant to fund personalized learning program
By: Maria DiCosola
Starting in January, not only can people earn a degree online from NAU, but they can now choose to participate in a self-paced degree program via the Internet.
NAU recently won a million-dollar grant to launch the program they hope will accommodate adult students who prefer to complete a college degree on a more flexible schedule. Funded by the Gates Foundation and distributed through Next Generation Learning Challenge, extended campuses staff were required to produce a video explaining how they would implement a personalized learning program.
“It’s a competency-based program,” Fred Hurst, the senior vice president for NAU Extended Campuses, said. “Basically, it’s designed for adult students who have life and work experience and it has the opportunity to test out of some material if a student has background in some area . . . It is online, it is self-paced, which means that the student can go at whatever speed they need to — more slowly if they don’t have much background in that subject area, or really fast if they have a lot of background in it.”
Hurst said the department hopes to enroll 500 students in the first year, with an expected continuous growth to nearly 8,000 students in five years.
The program has an easier admissions process than if a student were interested in attending the mountain campus.
“The application process is the student takes a readiness test — you can kind of compare it to the SAT, but it’s not really all that similar. It really is not try to figure out what you learned in high school, it’s trying to figure out if the student will likely be successful in the program,” Hurst said. “If a student has some deficits — lets say they don’t remember their math very well — they can do some free online courses so that they can get up to speed on that and then once they’ve passed the readiness assessment, they’re admitted to the program.”
To start, the program will consist of three majors: Small Business Administration, Computer Information Technology and General Education.
The latter degree is for students who have taken courses at other colleges and are looking to complete their degree.
Despite the select amount of courses offered at the fruition of the program, Hurst reassured that the curriculum meets all of the standards set for NAU students.
“The program has the same requirements of all NAU degrees. In fact, we exceed the requirements within all of the different areas that the university requires for personalized learning. It does not have a community college feel,” Hurst said.
Similar to BlackBoard Learn — the online software currently used by NAU students and faculty — the self-paced courses will be administered and managed on Pearson Learning Solutions. Each student is assigned a faculty mentor who specializes in the student’s chosen major to help them complete the program.
“We have lead, full-time faculty who are developing the degree programs,” Hurst said. “Pearson is providing both learning studio and some materials, but we’re also getting different materials from other publishers and even free materials of different sorts when they’re appropriate to what the student is learning . . .The approach that we’re taking with the different materials is that for any concept that a student needs to learn, there will be multiple ways to do that.”
While a self-paced program may seem more convenient for some students, Hurst explained that there is much more self-discipline required when working without deadlines.
“A requirement both for the program and for Financial Aid purposes is that the student make satisfactory progress,” Hurst said. “But in terms of when someone turns in a paper — let’s say — it’s self-paced so there is no deadline. But, if a student is not making progress in a course, their faculty mentor will know that and the next time they talk — which is a minimum of every two weeks — they’ll be saying, ‘You’re not making progress in this course. What’s going on and how can I help you be successful?’”
Another unique aspect of the program is its pricing structure. While current online students pay per credit hour, this program charges a flat rate of $2,500 per 6-month semester. This includes all reading materials and as many — or as few — credits as the student would like to complete. Therefore, if a student wants to complete 20 credits in one semester, they pay the same amount of money that a student who only wants to complete 12 credits.
In comparison, NAU’s already established online degree system, according to the extended campuses website, costs $3,151 per semester to enroll anywhere from seven to 19 credits, plus up to $105 in technology and financial aid charges, not including possible additional class fees.
Not only is it more economically viable than NAU’s current online program, but the self-paced program would be significantly less expensive than getting a degree at their mountain campus.
However, despite the cheaper alternative, Caitlin Thede, a senior exercise science major enrolled at the Flagstaff mountain campus, said she believes the cost of going to class everyday is worth it.
“I personally don’t have a problem with the program but I also would not have chosen to do it,” Thede said. “It sounds like a great opportunity for students who are just seeking a degree to get in their free time. However, I do not like that style of learning. I will pay more for in-person classes because I think I get more out of them. For me, I’m paying more for the full college experience rather than simply a degree.”
While the program is targeting adult students, Hurst said anyone is allowed to enroll.
“We’re not going to restrict who signs up, but for several reasons we think that this will primarily appeal to adults who have lots of other responsibilities,” Hurst said. “In terms of someone straight out of high school, remember this is self-paced and the self-motivation factor is really important. The student really needs to know that they have to be self-motivated and that they have to work to move forward.”
NAU President John Haeger said he is looking forward to implementing new learning methods for the university.
“With Personalized Learning, we are opening a new era in academic instruction at Northern Arizona University,” said NAU President John Haeger. “This program is a huge step toward transforming our institution through technology. We are grateful that Next Generation Learning Challenges has recognized our innovative approach with this award.”
Hurst is confident that NAU is a leader in personalized learning.
“A lot of institutions across the country are looking at programs like this, but I think we’re the furthest ahead of any of the institutions at this point in implementing one.”