As part of National University’s Precision Education initiative, we’re experimenting with a variety of data-informed tools to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the services we provide and to improve our adult learners’ chances of persisting and succeeding in reaching their educational goals.

For example, we’re trying out a system that texts students with questions that, based on their responses, identify those who might need additional help even before they start falling behind, and then automatically sends them advice electronically. That is called nudging.

Another tool is helping our Student Services staff become more effective and efficient by allowing them to focus on the students most likely to drop out, better understand the unique issues each one is facing, and come up with evidence-based plans to help them get back on track.

Early Warning System
The tool is called Ilume and was developed by a company called Civitas Learning. Ilume is collecting about 100 variables on each student and amalgamating them to help us anticipate problems before they arise. For example, we require all new students to go through a one-hour orientation session. For the pilot, we tracked those students who did not complete the session, which gave us a clue that they might not be fully engaged in their studies and might benefit from some counseling.

Typically, each member of the student support team is trying to reach out to about 1,000 students on academic probation to find out why they are struggling and to recommend steps they can take that will help them regain momentum. It is time-consuming and many of those we manage to contact do not follow through on our recommendations and stop taking classes. For the pilot, the tool assigned each coach only 200 students—those most at-risk—to contact. Before the support team members spoke to the students, they had information about the issues each one was facing. Although academics can pose a roadblock to success, they are not the main reason most students drop out. Trouble paying for books, time management, goal setting, or problems using the online platform are more typically the cause. Knowing the precise nature of the problem helped the support staff provide more relevant advice.

Helping Students Follow Through
Not only was the support team able to make more informed suggestions, they were better equipped to help students follow through. Instead of just recommending that a student get help from the writing center, for example, the support team members could recommend they get more specific tutoring and also schedule an appointment in the same telephone call. That simple change doubled the percentage who actually showed up to get the help they needed. With fewer students, the team members could give them more time and negotiate with them a timeline for taking the recommended steps. They could also track whether the students had followed through and also whether they had signed up for a class the following month. That data will allow us to gather statistical evidence of the efficacy of the interventions.

Preliminary results from the pilot are encouraging—far more students who had been identified at risk persisted and successfully completed additional courses. We’re now piloting Ilume with a larger group of students. If we continue to see positive results, we’ll begin using it more widely, demonstrating another way that technology can help us personalize learning and increase our students’ long-term academic success.

Blog post by Dr. David Andrews, President of National University. Precision Education at National University is a research-based initiative that is exploring new ways to leverage technology, open education resources, and predictive data analytics to adapt to student needs and guide them to successful completion of their academic and career goals. Learn more at: