NCAT and OLI — Improving Outcomes and Saving Costs


The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) is a non-profit organization who’s mission is to encourage “the effective use of information technology to improve student learning outcomes and reduce the cost of higher education”. In the last 10 years, NCAT  has consulted over 150 courses and universities to redesign large, lecture-based courses based on a proven set of principles.  Among these principles:

  • the replacement of passive lectures with active online learning materials
  • the use of auto-graded, online assessments
  • the ability to provide students with individualized support

This excerpt is from their first proof of concept, the Program in Course Redesign.

“The results have been exceptional.  In their first 30 completed courses, twenty-five showed significant increases in student learning. Of the twenty-four projects that measured retention, eighteen reported a noticeable decrease in drop-failure-withdrawal (DFW) rates, ranging from 10 to 20%, as well as higher course-completion rates. Most dramatically, all thirty institutions reduced their costs by 37% on average, ranging from 20% to 77%.  NCAT has gradually grown its influence and network of universities.  The organization now hosts an annual conference, the Redesign Alliance, in which hundreds of colleges and universities attend to learn how they can re-think their introductory courses.” (

NCAT is now working at the state level in Arizona, Mississipi, New York, Tenessee, Maryland, Minnesota, and Hawaii.

Carnegie Melon’s Online Learning (OLI) is another organization at the forefront of course redesign.  Like NCAT, OLI focuses on what it calls “high gatekeeper” introductory courses — those necessary for most degree tracks, but with low success rates.  OLI’s approach is similar to NCAT’s as well, focusing on replacing lectures with interactive online courses and regular, auto-generated assessments.

“Carnegie Mellon’s work has given roughly 300 classrooms around the world access to software-enhanced, college-level online-course material in subjects like biology and statistics. These digital environments track students’ progress, give them feedback, and tip off professors about where students are struggling so the instructors can make better use of class time. Now Carnegie Mellon plans to work with a consortium of community colleges to set up four introductory courses with a goal of raising completion rates by 25 percent. (

Both of these initiatives are taking practical and empirical approaches to solving fundamental educational problems.  NCAT, in particular, has done a great job of shepherding redesign — partnering with institutions and the private sector to ensurethat the progress of every course is measured carefully.  My hope is that the market size of these courses (each intro course is roughly 800 units), the scientific approach and the sound principles on which they’re developed will drive real innovations in educational technology.


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