Machine Learning Predicts Students’ Final Grades As the Course Unfolds

“Can we predict a student’s final grade based on his or her behavior in the course so far?”

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Don Clark showcases Canadian company Desire2Learn, a provider of cloud-based learning systems to enterprises and academia that recently announced this very capability.

With 10 million learners over 14 years, the company has collected detailed records on student engagement with instructional materials and their subsequent performance on tests.

Desire2Learn has developed machine learning algorithms it applies to its historical data that make predictions of how students will fare as the course unfolds.

Such predictive analysis serves as an early warning signal so instructors can give at-risk learners the additional, personalized attention they need, when they need it most.

The company’s CEO, John Baker, claims Desire2Learn’s algorithms yield greater than 90% accuracy at predicting letter grades.

John Baker, CEO Desire2Learn (c) Desire2Learn
John Baker, CEO Desire2Learn (c) Desire2Learn

Just the same, privacy issues do crop up. For example, instructors having student’s individual engagement statistics can expose a student’s general level of effort.

As a safeguard, Desire2Learn anonymizes personally identifiable information about student activities by stripping off such data when the student finishes the course.

The company makes predictive findings available to instructors through its Students Success System and they plan to do likewise for students through Degree Compass, a product currently in beta.

So, how would your business change if you had time predictions about future outcomes?


Machine Learning Startup Skytree Lands $18 Million

In venture capital circles, machine learning startups are about to catch fire. This makes sense as the size of data sets that companies and organizations need to utilize spirals beyond what the human brain can fathom.

As Derrick Harris at Gigaom reports, Skytree landed $18 million in Series A funding from US Venture Partners, United Parcel Service and Scott McNealy, the Sun Microsystems co-founder and former CEO. The company began just over a year earlier with $1.5 million in seed funding.

Skytree co-founder Alexander Gray (second from left) at Structure: Data 2012. (c) Pinar Ozger
Skytree co-founder Alexander Gray (second from left) at Structure: Data 2012. (c) Pinar Ozger

As big data gets bigger ever more quickly, machine learning makes it possible to identify meaningful patterns in real time that would elude sharp humans even with the best of query tools.

Still, there’s often a place for human judgment to flesh out the findings of machine learning algorithms.

For example: Netflix recommendations, the ZestFinance credit risk analysis platform and ProPublica’s Message Machine project that combs through vast volumes of crowd-sourced emails to find important news stories on a given topic.

The flagship Skytree product, Skytree Server, lets users run advanced machine learning algorithms against their own data sources at speeds much faster than current alternatives. The company claims such rapid and complete processing of large datasets yields extraordinary boosts in accuracy.

Skytree’s new beta product, Adviser, allows novice users to perform machine learning analysis of their data on a laptop and receive guidance about methods and findings.

As the machine learning space becomes more accessible to a wider audience, expect to see more startups get venture funding.

And with DARPA striving to make it easier for machine learning developers to focus more on application design and less on the complexities of statistical inference, this trend could have momentum for some time to come.

Machine Learning Touches All Aspects of Medical Care

Jennifer Barrett
Courtesy of George Mason University

Writing for Mason Research at George Mason University, Michele McDonald reports on how machine learning is helping doctors determine the best course of treatment for their patients. What’s more, machine learning is improving efficiency in medical billing and even predicting patients’ future medical conditions.

Using complex algorithms to mine the data, individualized medicine becomes possible according to Janusz Wojtusiak, director of the Machine Learning and Inference Laboratory and the Center for Discovery Science and Health Informatics at Mason’s College of Health and Human Services.

Wojtusiak points out how current research and studies focus on the average patient whereas those being treated want personalized care at the lowest risk for the best outcome.

Machine learning can identify patterns in reams of data and place the patient’s conditions and symptoms in context to build an individualized treatment model.

As such, machine learning seeks to support the physician based on the history of the condition as well as the history of the patient.

The data to be mined is vast and detailed. It includes the lab tests, diagnoses, treatments, and qualitative notes of individual patients who, taken together, form large populations.

Machine learning uses algorithms that recognize the data, identify patterns in it and derive meaningful analyses.

For example, researchers at the Machine Learning and Inference Lab are comparing five different treatment options for patients with prostate cancer.

To determine the best treatment option, machine learning must first categorize prostate cancer patients on the basis of certain commonalities. When a new patient comes in, algorithms can figure out which group he is most similar to. In turn, this guides the direction of treatment for that patient.

Given the high stakes consequences involved with patient care, the complexity that must be sorted out when making diagnoses and the ongoing monitoring of interventions against outcomes, machine learning development in health care is risk-mitigating and cost-effective.

For more about The Machine Learning and Inference Lab and the health care pilot projects they are working on, see the original article here.

DARPA Sets Stage for Giant Leap Forward in Machine Learning

Probabilistic Programming for Advanced Machine Learning
Courtesy of

As the new frontier in computing. machine learning brings us software that can make sense of big data, act on its findings and draw insights from ambiguous information.

Spam filters, recommendation systems and driver assistance technology are some of today’s more mainstream uses of machine learning.

Like life on any frontier, creating new machine learning applications, even with the most talented of teams, can be difficult and slow for a lack of tools and infrastructure.

DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is tackling this problem head on by launching the Probabilistic Programming for Advanced Machine Learning Program (PPAML).

Probabilistic programming is a programming paradigm for dealing with uncertain information.

In much the same way that high level programming languages spared developers the need to deal with machine level issues, DARPA’s focus on probabilistic programming sets the stage for a quantum leap forward in machine learning.

More specifically, machine learning developers using new programming languages geared for probabilistic inference will be freed up to deliver applications faster that are more innovative, effective and efficient while relying less on big data, as is common today.

For details, see the DARPA Special Notice document describing the specific capabilities sought at