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?

I don't have to think too hard because I know that this has been done for quite a few years at my CC and I think there is some evidence that it is effective.

The idea behind a MOOC is a flipped classroom where a student watches a class-length lecture (of highly variable and perhaps even dubious quality or relevance to a specific course) at home and comes to class prepared for a more participatory learning experience. The idea is similar to expecting students to read a good (as opposed to a boring or dubious) textbook before coming to class.

The idea you are talking about is more like JiT (Just in Time) support for problem solving while they are doing homework. That would use hundreds of short videos targeted at specific skills that need work. There is a lot of this out there, from Khan to skilled math professors.

This can be used in a synchronous class mode (where students spend more or less time keeping up) or combined with a mastery-style approach that allows students to move at their own pace. As with the original PLATO project that started in 1960, this part is usually done with adaptive computer-based programmed learning in a wired classroom.

As you note, the semester system runs headlong into a conflict here between its two main goals: quantifying the cost of the instruction (which correlates well with time) and quantifying what has been learned (which fails if the student can master three semesters of material in one semester).
Isn't one of the main lessons of the remediation death spiral that those particular students need a *lot* of support to succeed?

Isn't the point of MOOCs to reduce the amount of support per student?

So wouldn't they be, by definition, the very worst model for remediation? After all, everyone has always been able to go to the library and check out a textbook (which is the MOOC model in a nutshell). And yet, remediation exists.

My own guess is that in a few years MOOCs will largely replace textbooks, especially in the more liberal arts areas. In that sense they can indeed support teaching. Of course, that's not how they are boing sold, and would require a different financial model.
I have a major concern with using the MOOC/competency approach for remedial courses. I have found that in order to be successful in a competency-based, self-paced course a student needs to be fairly mature, they must be well-motivated, they must be a good scheduler of their time, and they must be able to avoid procrastination. Most students who need remedial instruction probably do not fall into this category. In addition, poorly-prepared or poorly-motivated students probably need an live, in-person instructor to guide them, especially if they have difficulty in understanding the material. If schools rely too heavily on such an approach for their remedial courses simply in order to save a little bit of money, there will probably be a lot more failures and a much larger number of students who drop out, probably costing the school a lot more money in the long run.
This is exactly what's just been done by my college (Wake Tech Community College, in Raleigh, NC). We have our very first MOOC, an Introductory Algebra Review. The hope is that it'll help students test out of the developmental classes - I've already referred some students who marginally failed to pass those but who can't afford to do the dev classes as summer classes (or can't get in).
I agree with ArtMathProf: this is SO not a student population that does well when left to pace themselves or check their own understanding. (I'd also add that, at least in my part of the country, many of the students in those classes have minimal computer skills and limited access to the Internet.)
Ditto the comments for the highly motivated students.

If you are poorly motivated, poorly prepared, or possess average ability but would rather be the subject of direct instruction, then, well, pay for it.

Just as the folks who are not endowed with beauty have to pay for plastic surgery.

Many years ago, before the age of widespread computer technology, teachers lamented the lack of sufficient "overhead projectors", and there were those who considered themselves technologically savvy for their ability to produce copious amounts of transparencies.

I remember a colleague saying that, the lecturer appeared savvy but the students did not learn. I also recall a students saying that, a class with a projector provided the perfect opportunity for a nap.

In the event that these at-risk do overcome the developmental classes, what happens to them at college level, where do they buy motivation?

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