A growing number of college students now require remediation before they're able to enroll in courses required for graduation, leaving schools with a problem. At a time when both university tuition and student loan debt is on the rise and state higher education budgets are tight, offering remedial courses feels like an unjustifiable expense. But students need it, and without it, many would never graduate college at all.
That is why the experiment undertaken by California's Pierce College is so important. Pierce has begun offering remedial courses online – which not only allows the school to offer them more cheaply, but also gives students enough scheduling flexibility to combine them with credit-granting traditional classes they can take at the same time. This puts remedial students on a friendlier schedule towards graduation.
According to Carla Rivera of The Los Angeles Times, although online remedial courses have so far fulfilled their promise as the cheaper alternative, when it comes to student outcomes the results have not been as encouraging. For example, 45 students enrolled in last semester's remedial algebra course, but only 28 of them completed it — and only 15 of the 28 passed it.
In the traditional classroom, you're paying for a teacher in front of a classroom, you're paying for that building time," said Stanford University education professor Eric Bettinger. "If we can cut costs for these types of programs, we might be in the position of offering something that has the same efficacy that would save money.
"There's no evidence that it will perform better, but our hope is that it's a cheaper delivery mechanism," he said.
Some educators cite other benefits: Students in online classes have the flexibility to study on their own schedule and can skip the material they already know. Lectures and more difficult course work can be viewed repeatedly, and feedback on homework is instant.
But as Furmuly's experience with Math 125 showed, there are significant pitfalls in the approach.
As some experts point out, online courses require study discipline and habits that many students who don't test at college level simply don't have. Requiring it as a prerequisite to a remedial course success could be setting them up for failure before they even start. Offering the courses online could be denying personal attention to those students who need it most to succeed.
However, personal attention is in short supply at the moment, especially in California's financially-strapped community colleges where more than 70% of incoming students need remediation in at least one subject. Of those, fewer than half ever end up either transferring to a four-year college or earning a 2-year degree. Cheaper online remedial alternatives could prove the be the only affordable option available to schools making up the state's Community College System.
Because of the increasing crowding at California's public universities and colleges, Gov. Jerry Brown has been urging administrators to embrace online education.
Not only are those classes significantly cheaper, but they also can enroll many more students at the same time.
The classes are beginning to spring up around the state.
In January, San Jose State joined with the Silicon Valley education start-up Udacity to offer low-cost, entry-level classes, including remedial math. The goal is to use new teaching methods to help students pass these classes the first time.
Pierce College is planning a pilot project this fall offering three fully online remedial math classes.