Open Courses Opening Doors to Developmental EducationA. Sasha Thackaberry | Assistant Vice President of Academic Technology, Course Production and Alternative Learning Models, Southern New Hampshire University
Developmental, or remedial, programming has been thrust into the limelight over the past few years. While college leaders point to the importance of these courses in ensuring all students are prepared for college-level, credit-bearing work, critics argue that they are an added expense and a barrier to completion for high-risk students. When Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) burst onto the scene, some college leaders saw an opportunity to use the technology to revolutionize developmental education. In this interview, Alexandera Thackaberry reflects on her experience launching a MOOC for developmental programming and shares her thoughts on what the future holds for this approach to remedial education.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did Tri-C decide to create a MOOC for students in need of developmental education in math?
Alexandera Thackaberry (AT): Developmental education (dev-ed) has been a real concern at the community college level. Leadership at that point was looking for some alternative solutions. Tri-C had a portfolio approach to developmental education. There were several different very promising initiatives going on and they wanted to throw this in the mix and see what the results would be. From the get-go, it was something that we were looking at more strategically to see if there might be opportunities to help our dev-ed students leapfrog some of the developmental education sequences they would have to go through. The MOOC that was put together addressed what we would call our basic-level developmental mathematics content—Pre-Algebra.
Evo: How did you bring staff, faculty and institutional leadership on board with the idea?
AT: The relationship we had with the faculty was everything. We had a real faculty champion on the project from the beginning—Professor Don Gabriel—who thought this had a lot of potential. We recruited some additional talented faculty that were very interested in the project and were very committed.
It also helped that it was a Gates Foundation grant that originally funded it because they have a good track record of funding educational innovations and allowing experiments to occur that otherwise would not occur. This was also the beginning of MOOCs within institutions that weren’t Ivy League. We were actually the first community college MOOC in the nation.
Evo: What were some of the most significant challenges you encountered in reconfiguring course content to work in the MOOC format?
AT: The biggest challenge was getting into a rhythm with the design and development of it. The grant was originally written with a very innovative MOOC model. It had a gamified structure, so from the very beginning, it was a competency-based model where students leveled up and they could take the assessments as many times as they needed in order to demonstrate their learning and advance. The other part that was really challenging was we had committed to using only open educational resources in the creation of the course itself. That required a lot of faculty time and effort in partnership with instructional designers in vetting resources and making sure the resources were aligned properly with the objectives and assessments.
In terms of cultural challenges, at the time we launched this course there was a lot of hype around MOOCs, which also meant there was a lot of controversy around them. It was important that we placed it right for the collective mindset and culture of the institution. It really was approached as an experiment from a very data-driven perspective. Everyone was really on board with seeing if it would make a difference.
Since the MOOC project in 2012, more and more community colleges have started using MOOCs or MOOC-hybrid models to attempt to accelerate progress through developmental math courses, some of which were modeled after our MOOC or similar projects.
Evo: How did students react to the shift to the MOOC format? Did they run into any issues and, if so, how did you help them resolve those issues?
AT: It was presented as an option to students, particularly within the testing centers when they went in to take placement tests. Students could opt to take the MOOC to see if they could leapfrog dev ed math courses and accelerate their path to credit-bearing courses. For students, we didn’t see a huge amount of difficulty. Obviously, there isn’t a great retention rate in MOOCs and that’s important to know going in. MOOCs are fundamentally a different animal than online courses and we have to get out of the mindset of comparing them to traditional online courses. I also think that the conversation about MOOCs is not just about an isolated MOOC—particularly in reference to community college students. The huge potential of MOOCs is with blended models and how we can leverage that quality design and content and innovative ways of partnering with other institutions, with high schools, innovative faculty, four-year universities and employers.
The designing of the actual course was highly structured, which we knew we had to do for our students. The way in which the course design and development was conducted in partnership with the faculty really mitigated a lot of those problems that students had. In an end analysis, we had an 18.4 percent success rate. In our MOOC, success and completion were the same thing. You could not move to the next level unless you were successful at 80 percent and above. The criteria for 80 percent was set by faculty because our data at the institution was that if students get a C in a developmental education course, even though they pass that course, they’re less likely to be successful in their next course. We had a small global footprint and we did have a fair amount of other educators who were just interested and wanted to see what it looked like.
Evo: What role do you think MOOCs will play in the future of developmental education?
AT: MOOCs have a great amount of potential. The concept of college readiness itself is changing in higher ed and we have to make sure that it’s supporting the pathways that students can take to get to college-level courses. What we have to do is facilitate and accelerate that progress. That’s where things like MOOCs might be contextualized more as college preparation in general. I know there are a few colleges that are looking at MOOCs as a pre-enrollment so that those students who are interested in starting at college level have that opportunity to do so before they get to college.
There will always be students who need hands-on support so perhaps those MOOC models can be looked at in combination with how faculty can really use them with lab environments or in a flipped classroom model. There’s going to be a little more fusion of not just the subject matter, but also learning how to learn, learning how to be an effective student to really prepare our students for success in a community college environment. Gamified learning environments can be significant helpful in that regard. Looking at a MOOC at a pure MOOC is kind of missing the point.
Evo: To your mind, MOOCs should be introduced as part of a larger whole as opposed to an end in and of themselves.
AT: For a specific type of student, MOOCs for college preparation will be a stand-alone experience, but when I think about MOOCs and competency-based education and micro credentials, the real advantage is that we’ll be able to get that rich data from these environments so that we can figure out what works for the students. We can target those experiences for those students on the basis of prior data. Instead of just guessing about what might work for a student, we can determine what would be the best bet for getting that student college-ready, with effective skills about how to learn.
This interview has been edited for length.