Exclusive: Desire2Learn buys Bill Gates-backed ‘virtual guidance counselor’ Degree Compass

For most college students, picking classes involves reading up on options or chatting with classmates and professors. But, if Canadian ed tech company Desire2Learn has its way, more students will consult a data-driven “virtual guidance counselor.”
On Thursday, the company, which is a stone’s throw away from Research in Motion (s RIMM) in Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo area, announced that it acquired Degree Compass, a predictive analytics tool developed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The web-based app, created by Tristan Denley, a mathematician and provost of Tennesee’s Austin Peay State University, helps students select the courses most suited to their strengths and interests. Its algorithms consider a particular student’s transcript and test scores, as well as the performance of hundreds of thousands of previous students, to generate a personalized curriculum. The goal is to help more students actually complete their degree – and in a reduced amount of time.
“It’s almost like the way Netflix suggests movies, but instead of just suggesting classes students will enjoy, it suggests those that they’ll be able to handle and will help them get to their degree requirements,” Bill Gates said last year in a speech on the future of higher education.
According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, about half of higher education students fail to earn a degree and Complete College America reports that the average student takes 20 percent more courses than needed to meet their degree requirements.
“[We’re trying to] increase student outcomes – making sure all students have a greater ability to do well in their classes through having the right tools,” said Jeff McDowell, Desire2Learn’s VP of market development and new strategies. “This lines up perfectly with some of the things we’re working on regarding analytics.”
DegreeCompassSince launching in 1999, Desire2Learn has provided an online learning platform for K-12 and higher education schools in the U.S. and around the world. Last year, after going it alone for more than a decade, the company raised $80 million in its first round of venture financing (which was also the largest ed tech round of the year, according to CBInsights).
As Desire2Learn competes against other learning management systems like Blackboard, the company’s aim is that Degree Compass not only rounds out the suite of learning, eportfolio and analytics tools it offers current customers, but helps it reach new clients. And it highlights the growing demand for data-driven tools that can lead to outcomes.
For now, the technology could help a humanities student, for example, plan a course of study that optimizes his strengths and helps him complete a degree in the shortest amount of time. But, McDowell said, the tool is just a starting point. In time, they could add more functionality so that Degree Compass could help students identify the best courses for a particular career path, not just a degree.
Desire2Learn declined to share financial details. But it said that in addition to the technology, which is currently in use by three schools other than Austin Peay, it will add an undisclosed number of developers. Denley will remain Provost of Austin Peay but work with Desire2Learn on the Degree Compass roadmap and business development.