Commencement is without a doubt the most gratifying day at any university. For me, the fun is in visiting with students as they celebrate with their families, all of us taking pride in their accomplishments. At National University’s most recent commencement, I was struck by the diverse backgrounds of our adult learners and their families, and the unique obstacles to completing a degree that many conveyed. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all shared stories of past struggles, competing interests, financial challenges, and, most importantly, the perseverance it took to meet their goals.

Dr. David Andrews, President, National University

Dr. David Andrews, President, National University

Having spent most of my career at more traditional and more selective institutions, The Ohio State University and Johns Hopkins University being the most recent, visiting with our diverse students at their most prideful hour reminded me what is necessary to assure their success. Each of us as educators share this goal, however traditional and selective universities try to achieve this by picking students who are most likely to succeed in a traditional and selective environment. Consequently, there is little need for the institutions to customize their approach to the needs of the “chosen.” Instead, these students are asked to adjust to whatever is offered by the institution in the mode in which it is offered. More alike than they are different, these students neither require nor demand that the university adapt to their unique needs and circumstances.

The genesis of Precision Education at National University

By contrast, the incredibly diverse students at National “chose” us to help them fulfill their dreams. I came to National University just over a year ago because I was convinced that the University’s board, faculty, and staff are truly committed to creating an exceptional student experience for them. This is no small task, and was not affordable or achievable without new technology, open educational resources, integrated data systems, and predictive analytics that have recently become available.

If we are truly committed to adjusting to the needs of our students, it first requires us to be much more precise in understanding our students’ goals, needs, learning profiles, and circumstances. Then, we must become much more precise in varying the type of instruction and support to meet these needs. We are referring to the resulting ecosystem of adaptive support as Precision Education.

What is Precision Education?

Is Precision Education new, or just a recycling of old ideas? Educators have spoken of personalized learning for decades. In fact, the age-old, long-term apprenticeships with the master were considered the prototypes for this level of customization. Yet, even in those models, the masters chose their apprentices carefully. Now, though, we can create an integrated system of customized education that is available and affordable for everyone.

A number of institutions and entities are exploring “personalized education” approaches that are similarly grounded in customizing the experience for students. We are engaging with this growing community of thought leaders, educational innovators, businesses, and nonprofit groups and will work together with them to achieve the goal of re-imagining the future of higher education.

People sometimes ask me if they can see Precision Education in action. In fact, Precision Education is not one, but many solutions that are being tested and integrated into an ecosystem of student support. These solutions include, but aren’t limited to, adaptive machine learning instruction, competency-based learning, micro-badging, online student goal setting, and course navigation. The full picture of Precision Education will emerge only after we have used all of these solutions.

The Need for Precision Education

While our primary motivation for creating Precision Education is to help students better fulfill their individual goals and dreams, we also believe that the strength of the nation’s economy in the future is dependent on ensuring that students of all backgrounds, not just those in elite or selective public institutions, can have the same educational opportunities to advance and excel in their lives.

By 2025, California alone will have one million fewer workers with baccalaureate degrees than it needs to power its economy, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Our ability to reach students who are not being served adequately through traditional models, such as adult learners, is critical to our future. Doing so means higher education must more precisely adapt to student needs, rather than the other way around, while systematically measuring proficiency and mastery of subject matter.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts, and the thoughts of others, in this space to foster a wider public discussion about how we got here, what we are doing, and where we are heading with this. I welcome you to join us in this journey as we push the boundaries of what higher education can be for a new generation of students here at National University and beyond. Please contact us to get more involved in this movement that is critical to our community’s future.