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From Learning Science to Learning Engineering: Kaplan University’s Systematic Improvement Process

Oct. 6, 2016

By Martin Kurzweil

Facilitated by growth in the availability of data about learners, scholars in cognitive science, psychology, computer science, and other disciplines have developed sophisticated insights about how people learn and succeed in academic contexts. Yet, growth in the field of “learning science” has far outpaced higher education institutions’ efforts to apply its insights to their students’ experience.

Leaders at Kaplan, Inc., a company serving over a million learners in various programs, believe that a practical corollary to learning science is needed. They call this field “learning engineering.” Analogous to the relationship between mechanical engineering and physical science, or medicine and biological science, Kaplan has sought to develop learning engineering as the systematic application of general principles about how people learn in specific contexts through rigorous testing and refinement.

As we detail in our new case study, “Engineering Learning at Kaplan University,” Kaplan’s learning engineering is most fully realized in Kaplan University, a for-profit, largely online institution that served 38,000 degree and certificate seeking students in 2014-2015. Over the past decade, Kaplan University has developed and refined a course design and assessment process based in measurable learning outcomes. In addition, it has systematized an innovative “Research Pipeline,” through which skilled researchers rigorously test interventions on student learning, study the results, and scale successful interventions. These efforts have contributed to a larger-scale culture change at Kaplan University, with stakeholders across the institution embracing evidence-based methods for designing and improving learning experiences.

As a for-profit, largely online institution, Kaplan University has certain features amenable to standardizing a learning engineering approach that are not common among not-for-profit and public institutions. Its centralized curriculum has facilitated a systematic approach to course design and assessment, and its large, online courses have enabled the section-level and student-level randomized experiments that characterize Research Pipeline trials. In an era of intense—and largely deserved—scrutiny of for-profit education providers, there is a risk that the broader higher education community will look askance at even the most worthwhile innovations coming out of that sector. Yet many factors in Kaplan’s experience are generalizable: leaders with a strong vision have strategically leveraged existing infrastructure and built collaborative processes to support sustainable, continuous improvement. There is much to learn from its example.

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