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Community Colleges Offer Online Courses to Address Specific Needs of Remedial Students

Just 31 percent of community college students complete remedial math “gateway” courses before they move on to college level math, according to a recent study. To help combat this cycle, some community colleges are turning to newly developed online programs that emphasize repetition, practice and mastery of concepts.

Although online enrollment has grown tremendously in recent years — nearly 1 million more students took at least one online course in fall 2009 than in the previous year, according to the Sloan Consortium — community colleges have been slow to offer developmental courses online. At community colleges in Virginia, for example, only 3 percent to 4 percent of online courses are in developmental programs, according to an analysis from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Many of the developmental courses that have been offered online have had disappointing results. Dr. Shanna Jaggars, a senior research associate at CCRC, has found that students who take online remedial classes are less likely to succeed in college-level courses.

“Currently, many online courses are developed by simply porting the face-to-face materials to a course Web site and adding a discussion board,” a method, she says, that does “little to reinforce the course’s learning objectives.”

However, new courses being developed take into account the specific needs of remedial students.

For example, the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education in Marina, Calif., an online educational content provider, will make available to community colleges a free series of developmental math courses in April. The Gates Foundation-funded series, “Developmental Math — Open Program,” includes courses ranging from arithmetic to intermediate algebra, geometry and statistics.

“Students go through the course material filling the gaps in their knowledge rather than having to repeat things that they’ve already mastered,” says Ruth Rominger, the Institute’s director of Learning Design. This self-paced model of instruction can be especially beneficial to students looking to accelerate through their developmental programs, she says.

“Right now, many students don’t go on [to four-year colleges] because they have to take a year or two of developmental math that they don’t get credit for, and this is meant to be able to help them,” she says. “We’ve tried to really address the real audience of the students today. Part of that is accepting the idea that our students have various ranges of experience coming into their math class.”

The program also will include a series of pilot projects that are meant to be used in a variety of settings and for diverse populations, including Spanish-speakers and the hearing impaired.

At Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., a researcher had been calibrating data on the predictive nature of grades in developmental math courses. A disturbing pattern emerged. Students who received an “A” in low-level math courses (such as arithmetic) had an 80 percent chance of passing subsequent math courses. But students who received a “B” in such courses had only a 50 percent chance of passing the next course. For those who received a “C,” the likelihood of passing was even lower — between 15 and 20 percent.

“We knew that we needed to do something to ensure that all of our students who finished these courses came out with a B, B+ level of knowledge,” says Nicole Gray, a full-time math instructor at the college.

Gray and her colleagues worked to develop “Math My Way,” a program that combines arithmetic and pre-algebra and offers a blended model of instruction. In addition to traditional, face-to-face classes, students can either work on homework from a textbook or via online courses. Between 50 and 60 percent of “Math My Way” students pass the course, a rate that is comparable to traditional courses. However, an analysis also indicates that students in the “Math My Way” program are two to three times more likely to pass subsequent math courses.

Such statistics are not surprising, says Gray, because students in the “Math My Way” program develop habits that prove useful in upper-level math classes. To pass the program, for example, students must receive an 87 percent or better on each exam and must also earn at least an 80 percent on the final exam.

Still, CCRC’s Jaggars cautions against a rush to offer developmental courses online. “An online course is not necessarily a desirable alternative to a face-to-face course for a developmental student,” she says. Developmental students, for example, often lack the time management skills and self-directed learning ability that many online courses require.

“The developmental course curriculum should be aligned to ensure that students only need to take the material that they actually need to succeed in their program of study,” says Jaggars. “That can help them complete their developmental requirements more quickly, wasting less time and money and keeping them on a positive track toward completing their degree.”

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