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Acrobatiq a finalist for $20 million prize

Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon-affiliated online courseware company, has recently been named a finalist in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Courseware Challenge. Tracing its origins to Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI), Acrobatiq was founded in 2013 and provides individualized online learning experiences for students tackling introductory university courses. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Courseware Challenge to support science-based learning initiatives that aim to help disadvantaged college students with general education classes.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focuses on improving all Americans’ opportunities for success both in the classroom and in life. The Foundation began supporting online education programs in 2008, prompted by the increasing amount of research showing the impressive improvements made by students who supplemented their undergraduate courses with online learning experiences. Since 2008, it has invested more than $60 million in online courseware, according to its website.

The Next Generation Courseware Challenge is the Foundation’s effort to bring this learning technology to under-performing and disadvantaged college students. Seventeen finalists, including Acrobatiq, are currently beginning to receive portions of the $20 million prize. The actual winner will be announced later this year and will work with the Foundation for three years to strengthen its product.

Acrobatiq is a subsidiary of Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, which was established in 2001. The OLI combines the University’s strength in cognitive tutoring, human-computer interaction, and data-driven sciences to create online courses. OLI courses are used by teachers and students nationwide and internationally. Its strength stems from its ability to constantly evaluate, adapt, and improve the design of courses for more successful learning experiences, according to the OLI website.

Based in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood and New York City, Acrobatiq is building on OLI’s legacy. Acrobatiq, a for-profit company, develops new adaptive online courses using OLI, Carnegie Mellon, and the educational world’s research. Students must self-monitor their learning progress in Acrobatiq’s courses and apply what they are learning to real-world situations.

Courses are designed to supplement undergraduate level classes. As of now, many of the courses available are math- and science-oriented. Acrobatiq chief executive officer Eric Frank, speaking about the courses, reported that the company will be offering 25 new courses, including many in the humanities and business, by the summer.

Frank also said course design does not widely differ between science and humanities classes. In fact, he said, learning research has proved that the process of learning is consistent across subjects, languages, and cultures. He explained that the “learn by doing” method is what leads most students to success, hence the effectiveness of these online courses.

“It seems like we live in this moment where the Internet is this incredible medium to access to education. What’s been missing is quality. How do you ensure that a student is able to learn as much or more? There has to be robust learning,” said Frank.

Of course, many people are wary about online coursework’s effect on higher education institutions. Frank believes that companies like Acrobatiq will aid, and not undermine, teaching and learning at universities and colleges.

“I think there’s a fear of machine learning, because I think that’s a code word for ‘replace faculty,’ and I think that when teachers see what we’re doing, they see that it’s an opportunity to help them do what they’re doing better,” he said. For Frank, including online courseware in college classes enables more effective instruction in the classroom. He said that while students are building their foundational knowledge with online classes, precious in-class time could be used more advantageously.

Acrobatiq and similar companies aim to provide a supportive opportunity for a better standard of learning for both disadvantaged and privileged students.