Monday, May 06, 2013


MOOCs and Remediation

Bonnie Stewart’s post yesterday triggered some reflections on the ways that MOOCs could actually be useful in remediation.  I’m not sure if she would agree with where I’m taking this, but a good thought is a good thought.

Remedial classes, by and large, are subject to the same semester and financial aid regulations as credit-bearing classes.  That’s true even though, with rare exceptions, remedial classes don’t transfer.  And it makes sense that they don’t.  They don’t count towards graduation, for one thing, and the whole point of them is to get students ready for college level work.  Students are “supposed” to get ready for college level work in high school, so there’s already ample precedent for recognizing instruction done outside a college setting. Colleges have no exclusive claim to the subject matter; if anything, they’re somewhat defensive about including the subject matter at all.

(The transfer issue comes up more often than you might think.  Lateral transfers by students -- that is, switching from one community college to another -- are pretty common, even in the early going.  Students who have completed Basic Arithmetic at college A will frequently want “credit” for it when they arrive at college B, even though the credits don’t count towards graduation.  They often bristle upon being required to take another placement test.)

Recent research has identified long remedial sequences as attrition generators.  They’re also incredibly costly for colleges, both in direct costs of instruction and in the opportunity cost of lost enrollment through higher attrition.  

Meanwhile, the MOOC revolution has begun.  The recent kerfuffle at San Jose State over the semi-mandated use of Michael Sandel’s MOOC encapsulates many of the anxieties around MOOCs quite well. They’ll take our jobs!  They’re bad for students!  They’ll take our jobs!  They reduce our status!  They’ll take our jobs!  (Sandel is widely rumored to be the model for Mr. Burns, on The Simpsons.  Picturing him as Mr. Burns makes the issue more vivid.)  Between cost pressures, “gee whiz” techno enthusiasm, and a general cultural hostility towards traditional academia, it’s easy to paint MOOCs as trojan horses ready to lay waste to the city.

And I’m thinking, hmm.  

Let’s assume that MOOCs are at least potentially corrosive of the traditional semester structure.  (I consider that a feature, not a bug, but that’s another discussion.)  In the context of remedial courses, the traditional semester structure is a problem now.  And in remedial courses, the upside of credit hours -- transferability and counting towards graduation -- is absent.  


In their way, remedial courses are as close to purely competency-based as anything we do.  It’s just that we insist on shoving them into our semester structures.

Wouldn’t MOOCs make absolutely wonderful supplements for developmental classes, especially in math?  

I say “supplements,” because I don’t see them supplanting actual instructors.  Students at this level need personal attention when they get stuck or discouraged.  But a MOOC makes a great study aid for the student doing homework late at night.  If you combine some level of direct instruction with a self-paced course, and use a MOOC as a sort of open supplement, you could get the best of each.  Let the institution provide some structure and a professor.  Let the professor provide encouragement and as-needed direction.  Let the student set the pace.  And let the MOOC provide review lessons at eleven o’clock at night, or on the bus.  Let them level the playing field a bit.  And if they’re combined with OER textbooks, even better.  Ideally, they could provide momentum for breaking the semester structure for remediation altogether.  (Alternately, they could provide supplemental help during the regular semester in college level courses for students who arrive needing help, if we wanted to junk the “developmental course” model altogether.)

Instead of getting caught up in relatively idiotic discussions of transferring developmental courses, we could rethink the ways that we get students on track.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is this a reasonable short-term strategy to get us out of some bad habits, without abandoning students who actually need help?

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