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Collecting data and statistics is nothing new in education. Educators have been using Blackboard’s analytics software for years. But what is new is the sheer amount of predictive analytics that is available. President Obama recently announced that he wants America’s college graduate ranking to go from 12th place in the world last year to first by 2020. To accomplish this, our nation’s schools and educators will need to harness the power of big data – at least that’s what Toronto-based education startup Desire2Learn says.

The company, founded by CEO John Baker while attending the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Canada, in 1999, trades in educational predictive analytics. Desire2Learn, which has raised $80 million in funding from New Enterprise Associates and OMERS Ventures,  does things like help a student pick classe in which he’ll get the best grades or keep an eye on his progress. Clients include the New York City public school system as well as universities like the University of Arizona, the University of Memphis, and the Harvard School of Business. The company’s class selection software seems compelling, but for all the hoopla surrounding big data, the company will need to nail the predictive element to be really valuable.

Desire2Learn peddles two products. The first helps students effectively pick courses toward their degrees based on how well they will likely do in them. Baker describes it as a recommendation tool a la Netflix or Amazon. It will, for instance, tell a liberal arts type how he will likely fare in an engineering class by scouring his past classwork (or high school transcripts if he’s a freshman) and compare his academic record to other students who have taken that class. Baker claims it can predict if a student will pass or not with 90 percent accuracy and even settle on his letter grade with 92 percent accuracy.

The second gathers data on how a student is actually doing in a class and spots red flags like a bad grade on a quiz, or, more subtly, rushing through an online assignment. Then a teacher can intervene, and the program can do things like suggest additional reading. For a teacher, the software can also suggest what lessons will better resonate with a student. For example, if a student does better on a quiz after watching a certain type of video, the software can recommend a similar one.

Of course, this data-centric approach to education isn’t without pitfalls. It can serve to funnel students into the easiest courses and discourage them from challenging themselves.  Why shouldn’t a student take an engineering course even if the almighty algorithm informs him he isn’t likely to ace it? What happened to education for education’s sake?

Nevertheless, it does help in one regard.The Tennessee Board of Regents, which includes six universities including the University of Memphis and Tennessee State University, said it saw a 24 percent decrease in dropouts from  after using Desire2Learn software. At California State University, Long Beach, the graduation rate rose 3.3 percent since deploying the software. It was the largest one-year jump for a four-year period.

In the info graphic that the company supplied below, it shows that every year students graduate with about 12 credits that don’t count toward their degrees, causing them to spend more time in college, which reportedly costs taxpayers about $6 billion in the form of things like grant money and tuition subsidies, according to Complete College America.

Baker says that for a struggling student — either academically or financially — those extra units can help lead to the decision to drop out. And a high dropout rate is a data point that’s of use to no one.

Desire2Learn INFO V1