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Penn State Starts Network for Entrepreneurs With Focus on Online Learning

Education-technology companies are hot these days. So are online programs by universities. Pennsylvania State University hopes to tap into both trends with a new effort to turn its campus into an innovation hub for ed-tech companies.

The effort is called the EdTech Network, and officials hope it will spark entrepreneurship around the campus geared toward improving services for online students, said Craig D. Weidemann, the university’s vice provost for online education. That could help Penn State reach its 10-year goal of increasing enrollments in its online World Campus to 45,000 students.

Colleges face a “challenge in retention of online learners,” Mr. Weidemann said. While many students start a program online, it can be hard to move them all through to the end. At Penn State, those who do finish online programs are some of the university’s most active alumni, he said.

The new EdTech Network could look at a number of areas, such as discovering better ways to help students learn or how to offer more support services. The university already has 18,000 online students who could be a test pool for companies in the network, Mr. Weidemann said.

On campus, there’s a large group of students, faculty, and staff members interested in learning design who attend hack-a-thons and business competitions. “We’re creating interesting applications to help students,” Mr. Weidemann said, adding that the network would “create an environment that supports them to look at entrepreneurship opportunities.”

The university has already teamed up with InsideTrack, an organization that helps colleges improve student enrollment and completion, and that is relocating some employees to the campus and hiring in the area. Companies could also locate around Pennsylvania, ideally near campuses in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, Mr. Weidemann said.

InsideTrack has worked with World Campus for the past four years, and was interested in joining the network to connect with other companies that have a similar mission, said Dave Jarrat, InsideTrack’s vice president for marketing. Its involvement in the network will allow it to continue mentoring and helping students determine if the university’s online programs are right for them.

“It’ll be great for us to be part of an ecosystem of providers that are bringing together that complete tool set to essentially create an optimal online-learning experience for college students,” Mr. Jarrat said.

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