New program empowers students

Alison Brown leads development of Personalized Learning.

With the launch of Personalized Learning, an innovative, competency-based online degree program, Alison Brown believes that Northern Arizona University is fulfilling a critical commitment it has made to the people of Arizona. This commitment—providing accessible and affordable education that spurs workforce development—is based on the educational needs of the state’s residents and is one of the university’s highest priorities.

Brown, associate vice president for academic affairs at The Extended Campuses of Northern Arizona University, explains why the university decided to pursue the promise of Personalized Learning. “We feel a heavy obligation to help students find a happy career,” says Alison Brown. “A lot of students say they enroll in college to help them get better jobs, and we take that desire seriously.” Personalized Learning, says Brown, “empowers adult students to take charge of their education and enhance their careers.”

Program designed to create a skilled and inspired adult workforce 

Personalized Learning enables motivated students to earn a respected bachelor’s degree online in a time- and cost- effective manner by crediting their existing knowledge and tailoring coursework to their learning preferences. The program is offered for just $5,000 a year, including all books needed in digital format.

Personalized Learning combines a competency-based approach with a contextual, liberal arts curriculum. It was so innovative and potentially ground-breaking that EDUCASE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the university a $1 million grant in June 2012 to help develop it.

According to Fred Hurst, senior vice president of The Extended Campuses of Northern Arizona University and architect of the program, “Personalized Learning takes the learning objectives of traditional college coursework and reorganizes them to be more engaging and applicable to today’s workplace. This program is about creating a skilled and inspired adult workforce with the necessary critical thinking skills that meet the demands of employers.”

Brown provides academic leadership for curriculum development 

Brown, who provided academic leadership for the development of the new program, came to Northern Arizona University in 1989, where she taught philosophy, humanities, and women’s studies before joining NAU-Extended Campuses in 2000 as co-director of interdisciplinary studies and applied sciences. She was appointed to her current position in 2012.

NAU-Extended Campuses enrolls more than 7,700 students off-campus each semester, representing approximately one-third of the university’s student populations. Brown, who earned her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, provides leadership within the academic aspect of curriculum development, as well as innovation within the delivery of degree and certificate programs.

With more than 10 years of experience working with online programs, Brown explains, “When Fred Hurst asked me to lead the Personalized Learning initiative, my background in degree programs and online courses was really helpful.”

Marking a watershed moment in higher education 

According to Northern Arizona University President John Haeger, “Personalized Learning marks a watershed moment in higher education. As the first public university to launch this kind of program, Northern Arizona University is opening an entirely new level of access to a respected university education.”

Brown says the program enables students to be more efficient with their education. “Through Personalized Learning, the student is spending most of his or her time where it's needed and not spending a lot of time reviewing things that the student already knows,” Brown says. “You can go quickly through those things that are already known, and spend as much time as necessary on the concepts that are interesting to you or difficult for you.”

Currently, the program is offering three fully-accredited degrees: a BA in Liberal Arts, a BA in Computer Information Technologies, and a BA in Business Administration. The program will be expanded and, in time, offer many other majors as well as additional degrees.

 “I think it's a new player at the table, and I'd like to see it grow,” Brown says. “I think it's really great for the working, ambitious student.”

To learn more about the Personalized Learning program, visit