Desire2Learn’s New Learning Suite Aims To Predict Success, Change How Students Navigate Their Academic Career

Posted: May 10, 2013 in Education, Mobile, Startup
Tags: , , , , ,

Desire2Learn is a 10-plus year old Canadian company
that makes learning software — a learning
management system to be precise — and here’s why,
in spite of that description, it shouldn’t bore you to
sleep. In a space that’s traditionally been controlled
by bigs like Blackboard and Moodle, Desire2Learn has quietly managed to carve out its own growing
share of the market. Last September, the Waterloo-based company raised
a sizable $80 million round from NEA and others, and
today has over 700 clients and more than 10 million
people across higher education, K-12, healthcare and
beyond are using its learning software. Although the company doesn’t disclose financial
information, we’ve heard that its institutional contracts
are now translating into millions in revenue, which
along with its raise, has allowed it to expand its staff
from 600 to over 750 over the last year. In turn, the
company has been ramping up its focus on acquiring EdTech talent and is rumored to be planning an IPO
in the U.S. at some point down the road. While Desire2Learn has established a solid base, it’s
strategic M&A that can help lead the way forward,
fighting off a flattening growth curve and leading to
better products. The company has been acquiring
with more frequency of late, including two back-to-
back in January and March. Desire2Learn acquired course recommendation
engine, Degree Compass in March and is already
putting its tech to use to continue expanding its
learning platform. This week, the company announced
what it called “the biggest update to its Learning Suite
to date” — an update in which Degree Compass’ tech plays a central role, not only by expanding its toolset
but by potentially changing the way students navigate
their academic career. To do this, Desire2Learn wants to bring predictive
analytics into play in education. But why? Well, first
and foremost because, today, if students want to
figure out whether a course is right for them — or how
well they might perform in that course — they’re hard
pressed to find a good answer. They can ask fellow students, check websites that rank faculty based on
nebulous criteria or try to find surveys, but none of
these options are ideal. With its new analytics engine, Desire2Learn aims to
change that by giving students the ability to predict
their success in a particular course based on what
they’ve studied in the past and how they performed in
those classes. The new, so-called “Student Success
System,” was built (in part) from the technology it acquired from Degree Compass; however, while
Degree Compass used predictive analytics to help
students optimize their course selection, the new
product aims to help both sides of the learning
equation: Students and teachers. On the teacher side, Desire2Learn’s new analytics
engine allows them to view predictive data
visualizations that compare student performance
against their peers so that they can identify at-risk
students, for example, and monitor a student’s
progress over time. The idea is to give teachers access to important
insight on stuff like class dynamics and learning
trends, which they can then combine with
assessment data, to improve their instruction or adapt
to the way individual students learn. In theory, this
leads not only to higher engagement, but also better outcomes. For students, they use Desire2Learn as they normally
would, using it to view course materials, take
quizzes, submit homework and chat with their peers.
The platform then collects and analyzes each
student’s personal data and, by drawing from a wider
set of inputs, the engine can more accurately predict which classes students will perform best in and what
their grades will be. The system is currently operating at about 90 percent
accuracy when it comes to predicting performance by
letter grades, CEO John Baker tells us — a number
which should improve as the engine accumulates
more data, he says. In addition to its predictive analytics, Desire2Learn is
also making some significant updates to its mobile
app, including new integrations with Dropbox and
SkyDrive to allow students to engage with learning
resources in the same way they do outside the
classroom. What’s more, Desire2Learn is moving into Patbrite’s territory through ePortfolio and its new tool
which allows students to build portfolios based on
their in-school projects, grades and achievements in a
way that’s applicable to life after school and finding a
job. Essentially, the tool allows students to move their
academic resume to the cloud so they can take it
with them after they graduate, which the company is
incentivizing by offering 2GB of free storage. Basically, what we’ve come to realize, the
Desire2Learn CEO tells me, is that the company’s
initial approach to business (or academic) intelligence
was off track. “Students and teachers don’t
necessarily want more data, they want more insight
and they want that data broken out in a way that they can understand and helps them more quickly
visualize the learning map,” he says. When I asked if building and adding more and more
tools and features would dilute the experience and
result in feature overload, Baker said that the
company doesn’t want to build a million different
tools. Instead, it wants to become a platform that
supports a million tools and allows third-parties that specialize in particular areas of education to help
develop better products. Through open-sourcing its APIs, Desire2Learn along
with Edmodo and an increasing number of education
startups are beginning to tap into the potential
inherent to the creation of a real ecosystem. Adding
predictive analytics tools gives Desire2Learn another
carrot with which they hope to be able to draw both teachers, students and development partners into its

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