Inside Higher Ed: Free Courses for a Big Problem

Inside Higher Ed writer Paul Fain discusses the use of education technology at a community college level and why resources like Khan Academy are working for them. 
Free Courses for a Big Problem

Free online courses have run into a backlash of late. But a handful of community colleges may have found a way to dial up open-source content to help tackle one of higher education’s thorniest problems: remedial education.

The two-year colleges aren’t offering massive open online courses as substitutes for their offerings, however, or for the instructors who teach them.  

They have created their own online content, sometimes tapping free lectures from the Khan Academy or other sources. And rather than using it for stand-alone courses, the colleges have designed supplemental study guides for remedial classes or for the placement tests incoming students take.

Remediation is a serious stumbling block for students. Research has found that just one in four students who place into remedial courses will eventually earn a college credential or transfer to a four-year institution.

Major MOOC providers, particularly Coursera, have touted the potential of their courses to help more students succeed in remedial and gateway courses. That suggestion has rankled some in the community college sector, particularly the possible “outsourcing” of remediation to startups and professors at prestigious colleges. But a few acknowledge that there may be lessons to learn from the MOOC playbook, particularly when they have a say in how to incorporate those ideas.

For example, Cuyahoga Community College, which is located in Cleveland and better known as Tri-C, earlier this year developed a free online math course. Khan’s lectures account for about half the remedial course’s material. College officials said the rest comes from the open-source TeacherTube and Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, or MERLOT.

Tri-C’s new MOOC-style course isn’t aimed at the college’s students. It is shopping the class to local high schools, as The Quick & The Ed, a blog from Education Sector, reported earlier this year. The idea is to encourage students who are likely to attend Tri-C to brush up on their math skills before they arrive on campus.

Charles Dull, the college’s dean of eLearning and innovation, said Tri-C took the course on a “road show to a lot of the high schools in Cuyahoga County.”

And if students try the course but don’t end up at the college, he said that’s fine, too. “We opened it up to just about anyone who could benefit from it.”


Tri-C received a $50,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help develop the course. Gates last fall awarded a total of $550,000 in grant money to 10 institutions to experiment with MOOC content for remedial and introductory courses. Several other community colleges received the grants, including Wake Tech Community College, which is located in North Carolina.

The Gates grantees aren’t the only ones giving open-source courses a whirl. Bossier Parish Community College, a two-year college in Louisiana, has created five free online courses without outside seed money. All the courses match up with remedial courses in math, English and reading. And the “Open Campus” classes are available to anyone.

Faculty members designed the courses in-house, said Allison Martin, director of institutional effectiveness initiatives at Bossier Parish. The first five went live this spring, with almost 500 students registering. Two more are slated to debut in the fall.

Martin said the college looked at partnering with major MOOC providers to build the courses. Wake Tech, for example, collaborated with Udacity on a remedial math course. But Bossier ultimately decided to go it alone.

“We think we have a better understanding about our own developmental education population,” she said.

Instructors at the college are using the material in tandem with remedial courses, and are directing students to try the online content for extra help and as study guides. Bossier Parish is also distributing information about the online courses to students who plan to take placement tests over the summer.

The project’s leaders said they felt students at the college would react better to learning from online instructors they were likely to see on campus and in classrooms. That’s why they went with homegrown content taught by five faculty members from the college.

Most of Bossier’s students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, said Jim Henderson, the college’s chancellor. He said those students in particular do not react well to impersonal or “sterile” online courses.

“They’ve got to be able to see that face and know that ‘this is a person I can talk to,’ ” Henderson said.

Inexpensive Innovation

Both the Tri-C and Bossier Parish courses include more than MOOC-style experimentation. The courses are also self-paced and competency-based.

The Tri-C course is a “low-risk failure environment,” said Sasha Thackaberry, the college’s director of eLearning technologies. That means students can take each of its various modular levels as many times as they want. But they must master each level before they can progress to the next one.

That approach is grounded in game-style learning, Thackaberry said, which the college has been working on incorporating in courses for some time. “It actually teaches persistence and resilience.”

Most students are familiar with gaming. And college officials said nontraditional students in particular thrive on the positive feedback of progressing from level to level, rather than just receiving a single grade when they complete a course.

“The pressure isn’t on them to succeed,” said Dull. “It’s to learn.”

To pass the noncredit course students must master 80 percent of the competencies embedded in it. If they do, they receive a digital badge the college designed and registered with the Mozilla Foundation. Badging is a broad, nascent experiment aimed at signaling skills and knowledge outside of traditional credentialing.

The new course at Tri-C, and the Gates’ grant that supported its creation, enabled the college to combine competency-based education, badging and MOOCs – all concepts faculty members and administrators have been discussing.

“It was a great way for us to pursue a lot of ideas that we thought would be successful,” Thackaberry said.

Tri-C and Bossier Parish used Blackboard’s CourseSites, a free learning management system, as the platform for their open-source courses. Officials from the two colleges said CourseSites was user-friendly.

In addition to continuing to offer the course to local high school students, Tri-C is considering using it as a preparation tool for incoming students. The college is studying how students perform in the course and is making the material available for other institutions to use.

Bossier Parish is also tracking how its MOOC-style courses might affect remedial placement rates. College officials said they expect to see a bump in the number of students who are deemed college-ready and place directly into credit-bearing courses.

If that happens, it will be a hard-to-achieve payoff for a small investment. The college spent about $20,000 to cover its instructors’ time designing the courses. The courses’ hardware and software costs were $3,000.

Henderson said Bossier Parish has no choice but to find inexpensive and innovative ways to serve students. That’s because during the last four years, the college has seen its enrollment grow by 70 percent while its state support declined by 50 percent.

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Khan Academy a Big Hit at The Boys’ Latin School of Maryland

Guest blog post by Anne Kellerman, Director of Technology Programs at The Boys’ Latin of Maryland in Baltimore, MD.  

The Boys’ Latin School of Maryland is one of the oldest all-boys schools in the United States and a leader in boy centered education.  Using Khan Academy was, perhaps, a “no brainer” given our knowledge that boys are motivated by learning experiences which are dominated by interactivity, feedback and visual content.

Khan Academy at Boys' Latin

Boys’ Latin transitioned from a traditional print media Summer Math Review workbook to the Khan Academy web-based exercises beginning in June 2011.  Initially, our goal was three-fold -  to provide students with a more engaging set of practice exercises, to provide students with built in tutorials to review concepts, and to take advantage of the instant feedback that the site provides.  The Math Department developed skill set lists for each of our courses and created “playlists” for each course on our website.  Each fall when our students return to school, they are instructed to add their current math teacher as their Khan Academy coach.  In turn, the faculty member evaluates each student’s progress using the built in progress monitoring tools in Khan Academy.  Students have learned to take this important summer review work seriously, knowing that their hard work will be assessed for a significant grade during the first marking quarter.

Rising sophomore, Brendan Mullally notes  ”It’s accessible, easy, and fun to use.” 

Most importantly, student engagement in this summer math assignment has greatly improved.  Rising sophomore, Brendan Mullally notes  "It’s accessible, easy, and fun to use."  A group of rising 7th grade students remarked that they prefer the Khan Academy assignments (over the workbook) because they feel it is easier to visualize and solve the problems, and because the review tutorials are “really awesome.”

We feel the students are better prepared to “hit the ground running” in their math courses…

The transition to our Khan Academy based summer math review has been well received by students, parents, faculty and administration.  Moreover, we feel the students are better prepared to “hit the ground running” in their math courses each September.

Khan Academy Summer Math Review

Looking for a list of skills to review this summer? Check out the recommended practice exercises courtesy of the Boys’ Latin School in Maryland.  

For more math practice, log in and explore Khan Academy’s knowledge map.

Grade 6 Math 
1.      Adding and subtracting negative numbers
2.      Multiplying and dividing negative numbers
3.      Adding decimals
4.      Multiplying decimals
5.      Subtracting decimals
6.      Dividing decimals
7.      Greatest common divisor
8.      Least common multiple
9.      Divisibility
10.  Order of operations
11.  Mean median and mode
12.  Adding and subtracting fractions
13.  Multiplying fractions
14.  Dividing fractions
15.  Triangle types
16.  Angle types
17.  Converting decimals to percents
18.  Converting percents to decimals
19.  Converting mixed numbers and improper fractions
20.  Simplifying fractions

1. Adding and subtracting negative numbers
2. Subtracting Decimals
3. Adding Decimals
4. Absolute Value
5. Division 3
6. Multiplying Decimals
7. Greatest Common Divisor (Factor)
8. Division 4
9. Order of Operations
10. Least Common Multiple
11. Exponents I
12. Adding and Subtracting Fractions
13. Multiplying Fractions
14. Dividing Fractions
15. Linear Equations
16. Complimentary and Supplementary Angles
17. Graphing Points 2
18. Ordering Numbers
19. Equivalent Fractions 2
20. Writing Expressions

Algebra 1
1. Prime Factorization
2. Greatest Common Factor 
3. Least Common Multiple
4. Dividing Fractions 
5. Order of Operation 
6. Evaluating Expressions 
7. Scientific Notation - video 
7. Scientific Notation - exercise
8. Exponent Rules 
9. Pythagorean Theorem 
10.  Percentage Word Problems 
11.  Writing Expressions
12.  Graphing Points 
13.  Slope of a Line 
14.  Graphing Linear Equations 
15.  Graphing Inequalities 
16.  Graphing Systems of Equations 
17.  Simplifying Radicals 
18.  Multiplying Expressions 
19.  Factoring  Polynomials 
20.  Factoring Difference of Squares

Geometry and
Geometry Honors
1. Angles 1
2. Angles 2
3. Complementary and Supplementary Angles
4. Distance Formula 
5. Solid Geometry
6. Adding Fractions
7. Dividing Fractions
8. Identifying Slope of a Line
9. Factoring Polynomials 1
10. Multi-step Equations
11. Multiplying Polynomials
12. Equations of Parallel and Perpendicular Lines
13. Multi-Step Linear Inequalities
14. Evaluating Expressions in 2 variables
15. Systems of Equations
16. Multiplying Expressions 1
17. Simplifying Radicals
18. Pythagorean Theorem
19. Special Right Triangles
20. Trigonometry 0.5

Algebra II
1. Inverses of Functions
2. Domain of a Function
3. Quadratic Formula
4. Solutions to Quadratic Equations
5. Systems of Equations
6. Solving Quadratics by Taking the Square Root
7. Solving Quadratics by Factoring
8. Graphing Parabolas in Standard Form
9. Graphing Paraboloas in All Forms
10. Equation of a Line
11. Solving for the Y-Intercept
12.  Completing the Square 1
13.  Trigonometry 1
14.  Simplifying Expressions with Exponents
15.  Factoring difference of squares 2
16.  Linear Equations 4
17.  Writing Expressions 2
18.  Inverse Trig Functions
19.  Shifting and Reflecting Functions
20. Vertex of a Parabola

Algebra II Honors
1. Solving for the Y-Intercept (Alg I)
2. Average Word Problems (Alg I)
3. Multi-step linear inequalities (2.1-3)
4. Linear Equations 4 (3.1-4)
5. Systems of Equations (3.5)
6. Domain of a Function (3.8)
7. Simplifying Expressions with Exponents (4.2)
8. Multiplying Expressions 1 (4.3)
9. Solving Quadratics by Factoring (4.5)
10. Factoring difference of squares 2 (4.6)
11.Simplifying Rational Expressions I  (5.4) 

12. Simplifying Rational Expressions II (5.4)
13. Multiplying Complex Numbers (6.7)
14. Completing the Square 1 (7.1)
15. Quadratic Formula (7.2)
16. Shifting and Reflecting Functions (7.5)
17. Inverses of Functions (10.3)
18. Trigonometry 1 (12.2)
19. Trigonometry 1.5 (12.2)
20. Writing Expressions 2 (whole text)

1. Systems of Equations and Inequalities
2. Trigonometry 2
3. Unit Circle
4. Trig Identities
5. Logarithms 2
6. Even and odd functions
7. Complex numbers
8. Exponents 4
9. Graphing Systems of Equations
10. Adding and Subtracting Fractions
11. Absolute Value of Complex Numbers
12. Scaling Vectors
13. Vectors
14. Domain and Range
15. Dividing Fractions
16. Degrees to Radians
17. Completing the Square
18. Factoring Polynomials
19. Inverse Trig Functions
20. Radical Equations

Pre-calculus Honors
1. Systems of Equations and Inequalities
2. Trigonometry 2
3. Unit Circle
4. Trig Identities
5. Logarithms 2
6. Even and odd functions
7. Complex numbers
8. Exponents 4
9. Graphing Systems of Equations
10. Adding and Subtracting Fractions
11. Dividing Polynomials by Binomials 3
12. Scaling Vectors
13. Vectors
14. Domain and Range
15. Dividing Fractions
16. Pythagorean Identities
17. Completing the Square
18. Factoring Polynomials
19. Inverse Trig Functions
20. Radical Equations 

Applied Calculus Honors
1. Expressions with Unknown Variables 2 
2. Logarithms 2 
3. Radical Equations
4. Domain of a Function 
5. Solving Quadratics by Factoring
6. Quadratic Formula
7. Trigonometry 1 (Alg 2) 
8. Trigonometry 1.5 (Alg 2)
9. Inverse Trig Functions (PC)
10. Limits 1
11. Limits 2 
12. Derivative Intuition
13. Derivatives I 
14. Power Rule
15. Chain Rule
16. Product Rule 
17. Quotient Rule 
18. Special Derivatives 
19. Unit Circle 
20. Trig Identities

 AP Calculus AB 
1. Limits 1 
2. Limits 2 
3. Derivative Intuition 
4. Derivatives I 
5. Power Rule 
6. Chain Rule 
7. Product Rule 
8. Quotient Rule  
9. Special Derivatives 
10. L’Hopital’S Rule 
11.Unit Circle 
12.Trig Identities
13. Inverse Trig Functions 
14.Adding Vectors 
15.Scaling Vectors 
16.Simplifying Rational Expressions 3 
17.Logarithms 1 
18. Logarithms 2 
19. Recognizing Concavity
20. Recognizing Slope