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Colleges should use tech advances to adjust education strategies, online university chancellor says

Katie Glueck

Selecting a school is like using popular dating websites: Some students will click with some institutions, and some just won't.

That's the assessment of Mark Milliron, chancellor of Western Governors University Texas, who spoke to a crowd of educators, entrepreneurs and education activists at the South by Southwest Edu conference that kicked off Tuesday.

WGU Texas, an online university established with support by the state last fall, offers more than 50 bachelor's and master's degrees.

"We're very good with adult students," he said. "If you're an adult student with purpose — boy, we're the right place for you."

The average student at WGU Texas is 38 and is on track to earn a bachelor's degree in 30 months, Milliron said; many students already have some credit.

"We begin with the assumption ... that learners come to us knowing different things, and that they are able to learn at different rates," Milliron said. "What's interesting is that's not the dominant model of education."

Milliron argued that technology can bring a more thoughtful approach to education. "We know people are different and we have to find sustainable ways to reach most people, but ... we have more data at our fingertips than ever before, more capacity, to make learning more personal than ever before," he said.

Facebook recommends friends, iTunes recommends music, and credit card companies know when a credit card has been stolen based on the owner's past purchase patterns. The next step, Milliron said, is to use that kind of data analysis to adjust teaching methods when needed and promote better education.

WGU Texas, which has about 2,300 students and 50 faculty members, strives to give students constant feedback through a rigorous mentoring program using phones and Skype, Milliron said. The school also offers a series of online assessments to determine what students already know, so they can get their degrees in a timely fashion, rather than sitting in classes they could be teaching, Milliron said.

"What we've tried to do is pull those pieces and parts together to get that information right to the students, to let them tune the learning journey," he said.

Contact Katie Glueck at 445-3702