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ASU and BCG unveil new study on value of investment for institutions seeking to scale digital learning

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April 12, 2018

The Arizona State University Action Lab at EdPlus and The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) have unveiled a new study called “Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies From Six Leading Universities and Community Colleges.” The study, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, examines the return on investment for higher education institutions looking to implement high quality digital learning practices so they can achieve impact at a larger scale.

Utilizing a case study approach, the study included six leading universities and colleges that have a strong track record of using digital learning to serve large socioeconomically diverse student populations including Arizona State University, University of Central Florida, Georgia State University, Houston Community College, Kentucky Community and Technical College System and Rio Salado Community College.

The study looked at return on investment of digital learning in full immersion and blended digital immersion scenarios. It finds that when colleges and universities take a strategic approach to digital learning and invest in the design and development of high quality courses and programs, they can achieve three critical objectives. These include: higher retention and graduation rates and quicker matriculation for students who took at least some portion of their degree program online; increases in the total volume of student enrollment; and increases in the proportion of specific populations including Pell Grant-eligible students, older students and female students.

“We are now seeing how scaled digital learning environments circumnavigate barriers of time and space, decrease time to completion amidst a radical demographic shift, and provide pathways for unprecedented program completion,” said Lou Pugliese, managing director and senior education fellow at EdPlus. “The maturity of digital technologies has given way to new design methods that now allow institutions to more effectively address the unique set of specific learner needs in order to sustain in their academic journey.”

Findings from the study offer an understanding of how each institution adopted successful digital learning approaches and what impact they had. Based upon a review of the six case studies, some promising best practices are suggested:

  • develop a portfolio of different digital delivery models tailored to the particular needs of the institution’s student populations
  • achieve similar or better outcomes online by investing in instructional design, learning science, digital tools and capabilities that produce courses and curricula created for the unique challenges and opportunities in the digital realm
  • offer a network of remotely accessible support structures that are adapted to the needs of online learners
  • engage faculty as true partners and equip them for success by giving faculty a voice in key decisions, providing professional development, and fostering a culture of innovation
  • create a central team to manage the institution’s digital learning portfolio ensuring quality and sustaining momentum
  • rather than building everything in-house, tap outside vendors to accelerate innovation, expand capabilities and boost enrollment
  • develop strong institutional research, analytical capabilities and reporting systems necessary to make the data actionable

The Action Lab researchers are working on a number of other projects such as creating models to measure online student learning beyond grades.  The focus is on using observed student performance and behavioral data captured within ASU’s learning management system (e.g., exam grades, log data on whether a student clicked on a video, discussion group analysis, etc.) to dynamically estimate student learning in relation to the course objectives and associated program outcomes, explains Action Lab Senior Research Associate, Phil Arcuria.

This information could then be used by a variety of stakeholders, from students and faculty members to instructional designers and program directors to understand better student learning related to course and program objectives.

Another study in progress is looking at the removal of remedial math as a stepping stone course to MAT 117:College Algebra for online and campus immersion students at ASU. Instead, learners are placed directly into MAT 117 that now features ALEKS adaptive technology.

Action Lab Research Associate Jim Cunningham is studying: Whether ALEKS is effective in producing mastery of math concepts in college algebra; how are remedial students faring in the new system; what is the relationship between mastery in ALEKS, performance on the math final and the final grade in the math course and; and how well ALEKS prepares students for success in the next major steps in math, pre-calculus and calculus. 

Led by Pugliese, the Action Lab is designed to assess tools used in fully online and blended teaching systems with a suite of academic research methods, evidence-centered design, media industry quality-control approaches, usability studies and new data analytics. The Action Lab draws from ASU’s leadership position in digital learning, world-class research capacity in cognitive science, adaptive and personalized learning and social science. Leveraging this depth, the Action Lab develops new frameworks of digital learning evaluation so that these data can be translated into practical classroom applications to improve student outcomes at scale.

Read the executive summary and full Making Digital Learning Work report here

David Weissman serves as Senior Director of Communications for EdPlus.  He can be reached at

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