NAU becoming a national leader in a new approach to learning

Student using a computer

Northern Arizona University already knows about bringing innovation to higher education, but its next step may be the biggest yet.

NAU-Personalized Learning, a new initiative, clears the way to a college degree by crediting knowledge that students already possess and providing online tools that target each individual’s academic needs.

The program puts NAU at the forefront of public universities striving to implement competency-based learning, an approach that promises sweeping changes in course delivery and established views of how credits are earned.

Such fundamental shifts may ripple throughout the university.

“I hope what we learn from this will make its way back to campus,” said NAU President John Haeger, who has unveiled multiple initiatives to enhance course delivery and improve retention rates at the Flagstaff campus. He cited a recent $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation, via Next Generation Learning Challenges, as an early endorsement of the Personalized Learning concept.

Affordable personalized learning offers 3 degree programs

NAU’s new Personalized Learning program, which begins in the spring, initially will offer three undergraduate degree programs: computer information technology, small business administration and liberal arts.

Students will be allowed to enroll at any time during the calendar year, paying a flat fee of $2,500 for six months of instruction. There are no additional costs for books and no additional fees.

Inspired by a national wave of discussion about competency-based learning, the NAU program will build upon technological advances to deliver extensively redesigned courses. NAU is partnering with Pearson, which has developed an online learning platform, LearningStudio, that features real-time analytics.

“We’re taking existing courses and deconstructing them into outcomes and competencies,” said Fred Hurst, senior vice president for NAU’s Extended Campuses, which will oversee Personalized Learning. The courses then will be rebuilt to aim directly at outcomes, he said, often while combining disciplines. A business course, for example, may contain some history and writing skills.

Throughout, students will have access to a high-tech academic guide.

“The analytics will steer students to the resources most likely to make them successful,” Hurst said. Those resources include video, text, interactive materials and, of course, faculty.

Even with all the technology, Hurst said, it’s the faculty that put the “personalized” into this approach to learning. Ultimately, faculty are there to help students be successful, he said, acting as mentors and coaches for students who need that level of involvement.

The degree programs are intended to appeal to self-motivated non-traditional students, particularly because a pre-assessment for each individual course will allow students to test out of portions of the course, if they demonstrate sufficient competency in those areas.

NAU plans to begin offering Personalized Learning in January 2013. In the meantime, faculty members are working in conjunction with Pearson to develop the courses. The program will undergo an accreditation review in early fall and NAU also will submit its plans to the Arizona Board of Regents for approval.