Desire2Learn Acquires Course-Suggestion Software Inspired by Netflix and Amazon

If you watch a film on Netflix or buy a book on Amazon, those online services quickly provide suggestions of what else you might like. A service for college advising inspired by those recommendation systems is now entering the marketplace.

Desire2Learn Inc., a learning-software company, announced on Thursday that it had acquired DegreeCompass, a program designed by Tristan Denley, provost of Austin Peay State University, in Tennessee. The project is designed to enhance graduation rates, and therefore lower costs, as well as improve retention.

DegreeCompass uses an algorithm based on each student’s transcript, combined with thousands of past grades and standardized-test scores, to generate individualized course suggestions ranked on a five-star scale. Essentially, the suggestions tell students what courses they need for their majors and what courses, based on past performance, they will more easily pass, even offering estimated final grades.

The software was developed at Austin Peay by Mr. Denley in 2011 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At the time, the four-year graduation rate for undergraduates at the university was about 15 percent, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

While no data yet suggest that Austin Peay’s graduation rate has improved, Mr. Denly told The Chronicle in 2012 that the course predictions had been accurate within about half a letter grade. Three other Tennessee institutions—Nashville State Community College, Volunteer State Community College, and the University of Memphis—all soon began using DegreeCompass.

Jeff McDowell, vice president for market development at Desire2Learn, said company officials had heard about the invention when they were exploring ways to help improve college retention. “Only one in two U.S. students graduate from a college or university,” he said, citing the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. “These are huge numbers.”

Mr. Denley was already considering taking his technology to market, Mr. McDowell said, so Desire2Learn decided to acquire it for an undisclosed amount. A number of the software’s developers will remain with the project, including Mr. Denley, who will also continue to act as provost of Austin Peay.

Desire2Learn’s version of DegreeCompass will come out in the spring, but with no major changes in the software, Mr. McDowell said.

“It’ll launch as is,” he said. “But we have plans to evolve it, using the same analytics to go beyond just selecting courses. You’ll actually be able to model not just class selection, but degree and career selection, and lifelong learning.”

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