opinion

How to Set up Students to Succeed in Online Learning

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Make no mistake—college still works for most who attend; it remains the most reliable gateway to a successful future. But the numbers speak volumes about how higher education must improve to meet the burgeoning demand. When more than 40 percent of first-time, full-time students will not graduate within six years, if at all, it’s clear we must find better ways to help students succeed. With tuitions at four-year colleges more than double what they were 30 years ago, it’s also clear we must find new models to make higher education more affordable, as well as more effective.

As a step in this direction, one year ago Arizona State University (ASU) and edX teamed up to create the Global Freshman Academy (GFA). The GFA gives students access to freshman-level ASU courses through edX, the nonprofit online learning platform started by MIT and Harvard University. Students can take these courses for free, to build confidence in their college readiness, but students who succeed not only gain valuable experience, they can also earn academic credit for their work. Because students do not pay for credit until after they’ve successfully passed the course, GFA is one of the lowest-risk ways for students to start their college careers.

So what have we at ASU learned over the past year from this learning laboratory?

Since the first course launched in August 2015, we have offered seven freshman-level credit-bearing courses: Human Origins, Introduction to Solar Systems Astronomy, Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe, Introduction to Health and Wellness, Technological, Social and Sustainable Systems, and First Year Composition. More than 150,000 students have enrolled over the last nine months, with more than 2,300 of those students choosing to enroll on the ID Verified Track, the first steps towards becoming eligible to earn academic credit from ASU.

We’re pleased with our first year’s progress. While we have plenty of room for growth, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to offer for-credit freshman level courses at this next level scale. Student satisfaction with our offerings has been high, and we are eager to continue to grow with each successive term.

I’m particularly excited by the most recent addition to the Global Freshman Academy’s slate of courses, GFA College Algebra and Problem Solving (GFA CA). GFA CA is aimed at helping students earn the college math credit that will allow them to clear one of the most challenging hurdles in the path to success in higher education.

Failure to meet that math requirement is one of the principal reasons students entering college fail to advance. Past experiments with offering college algebra online have had challenges. For instance, Udacity’s 2013 efforts to offer college algebra to incoming students at San Jose State University struggled with many implementation issues. Few students succeeded.

GFA’s personalized approach to college algebra has its roots in ASU’s deep experience in using emerging technology to improve student performance. Five years ago, ASU began teaching freshman mathematics in a new way that combined an evidence-based pedagogical approach with adaptive tutoring. More than 50 ASU instructors now teach some 8,000 freshman math students each year, providing each student with a personalized educational pathway and each instructor with detailed profiles of their students mastery of the concepts covered in the course.

The program has had substantial success. So far, more than 35,000 students have successfully completed their math requirements. Students are more engaged; pass rates are up; the courses are producing better student outcomes and, most importantly, the ASU faculty continues to drive improvements.

With GFA CA, ASU is looking to scale its success in freshman math. Embedded within GFA CA is McGraw-Hill Education's ALEKS—a powerful computer-based tutoring system that provides each student with personalized instruction and high-frequency feedback. ALEKs accurately presents each student with the challenges at the edge of their individual zone of proximal development, helping students make the most rapid progress they can toward overall mastery of a complex set of topics.

In its first three weeks, GFA CA has attracted more than 21,000 students and is growing by about 1,000 students a week. Each student begins with an "Initial Knowledge Check" that builds a detailed map of what that student already knows and which topics will be the easiest for the student to tackle first. Topic by topic, ALEKS presents the student with problems to solve. When a student is unsure how to solve a problem, all the resources needed to master the challenge are just one click away. There are short explanatory videos, step-by-step explanations, the pertinent section of the textbook, even frequently asked questions—everything a student needs to learn how to solve the problem and advance to the next challenge. When students get stuck, they can send their questions to the ASU coaching team who reply with helpful answers—often including a short video tutoring session—that appear in the student’s Coaching Center.

Once a student demonstrates mastery of more than 90 percent of the curriculum, that student is invited to take a proctored comprehensive final exam. Students who pass the exam are eligible to purchase three college credits from ASU, as proof of their proficiency, and as indication of their readiness for further study.

At ASU, we strive to be a university measured not by whom we exclude, but rather by who we include and how they succeed. We are excited by the potential of GFA CA, and all the GFA courses, to help us in our mission to broaden access to high-quality post secondary education and model the changes needed for our country to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Adrian Sannier (@sannier) is Chief Academic Technology Officer for EdPlus and Professor of Practice in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Engineering at Arizona State University.

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