The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced a grant contest to create and research MOOC programs for remedial students. MOOC programs are used by a wide array of students across the globe and have become an exciting new development in free online education. One problem with these programs, however, is the problem they present to students at very low academic levels who have trouble keeping up with the ongoing contribution and conversation in a typical MOOC course. In an effort to promote experimentation with MOOC remedial courses, the foundation hopes to use fledgling grant programs as a means to get more information on the potential successes of remedial MOOC programs.
The issue of remedial courses in an open online format is a topic of debate for those in academia. Some claim that an open course environment is not the platform for remedial students, especially those who find even remedial courses difficult. Others contend that the idea is worth examining and that there may be a way to provide online modules that can give beginning students the help they need.
According to Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, a remedial MOOC format “has the potential for raising the quality of instruction in developmental education, if used properly.” Searching for a different model than a basic introductory course, which often has massive enrollment numbers but very low success rates are important to those behind the idea of a MOOC expansion into remedial areas. This would give students who are not academically prepared for a beginning-level course the chance to catch up and participate in this movement.
Amy Slaton, an associate professor of history at Drexel University, raised the point that as well-intentioned as experimental remedial programs may be, though, they are simply not going to be realistically viable. MOOCs depend on a large number of participating students since student participation and conversation makes these courses run. This kind of system, she noted, cannot sustain the “high-touch teaching” needed to support remedial students.
The foundation may, in fact, be a bit naïve in their hopes to create valuable programs for change without huge financial investments. The winning programs will receive one-year grants of up to $50,000. It is not known at this time whether this amount would be enough to build in the kind of in-system support needed for remedial students.
The primary goal for Melinda and Bill Gates, however, is to prompt a study into the ways remedial MOOC courses might work and research what is effective and why. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, echoed this sentiment stating that the grants are meant to do no more than seeking a method to understand “where MOOCs can be effective, and where they can’t.”
“The innovations so far exhibited with MOOCs are all about opening up elite brands to the masses and education for free,” said LeBlanc. “Neither of those innovations, which so captivates the press and others, actually addresses the real tough teaching and learning challenges at the heart of remedial education.”
While the verdict may still be out on the effectiveness of potential MOOC platforms geared toward remedial students, the Gates Foundation is certainly taking decisive steps toward understanding as much as possible and expanding free online education to all people who want to learn.
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