U.K. online university offers help for U.S. colleges

December 25, 2011

The United Kingdom is exporting to the United States an online remedy for one of the biggest challenges to getting students to go to college: fear.

Open University, founded by the British government 40 years ago, has had success at this with a handful of free, at-your-own-pace courses meant to widen access to degrees that were once largely the preserve of the nation’s upper classes. The courses target students who are ill-prepared, self-conscious and therefore unlikely to enroll in conventional colleges.

Now, the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $750,000 to adapt two of these courses for about a dozen U.S. colleges this year, including Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland and the University of Maryland University College.

“The idea is to help people who are put off by the system,” said Patrick McAndrew, Open University’s associate director for learning and teaching.

People like Daniel Conn.

At age 14, Conn was so tech-savvy he programmed computer code for fun. But the idea of college was beyond his grasp.

“The exams came, and I just freaked out,” he said. Every year, Conn said, he would write to universities for a prospectus, then “get completely daunted and throw it away.”

Conn gave up on school and got a job at a car dealership in this seaside town. By accident, he stumbled across a sampling of free courses over the Internet from Open University.

The inducement did the trick; Conn, now 28, built enough confidence to write a check and enroll. He’s pursuing a degree in information technology and computing with a specialty in software development.

“After a few months, it was, ‘I can actually do this,’ ” he said one recent day over a pint in a Brighton pub.

One of the Open University courses offered free to U.S. students teaches college-level study skills.

The other focuses on a subject many dread: math. The course is intended to do more than instill confidence. It’s designed to help students do better on placement tests or move more quickly through remedial math courses that foil the aspirations of countless would-be college graduates.

Nearly two-thirds of first-year U.S. students must take at least one remedial class before their college careers can even begin. Such classes aren’t typically covered by financial aid and don’t yield any academic credit.

Of those who need the most remedial math work, only 16 percent complete the requirements within three years. Many of the rest just give up.

It’s not only the students who are affected. Remediation costs community colleges as much as $2.3 billion a year and four-year universities $500 million, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“Remedial math has become the largest single barrier to student advancement,” said Robyn Toman, a math professor at Anne Arundel, where more than 70 percent of students need remedial courses — 98 percent of them in at least math. “For a lot of students, it literally kills their dream.”

Educators say one of the biggest reasons for this turns out to be one of the hardest to quantify: the kind of self-doubt that daunted Daniel Conn.

“You take a student who doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence, you give them a placement test, and you tell them they have to take three semesters of math — that’s pretty demotivating,” said Josh Jarrett, head of the postsecondary education program at the Gates Foundation.

The first part of the solution is to show students they can do the work, educators say, and that’s easiest if you provide it to them free.

“Nothing succeeds like success, and in mathematics — especially developmental mathematics — getting the students to understand they really can be successful, that’s the most important step,” said Dan Symancyk, a math professor and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Anne Arundel.

There’s some skepticism about the online approach. A study by the Community College Research Center found that students who took online courses were more likely to drop out than those who took the same courses in conventional classrooms.

At Open University, 13,000 students who have tried the OpenLearn free courses in math and other topics have gone on to pursue degrees. Classes typically combine Internet instruction with audio, video, in-person and online study groups, tutors and tests. Administrators say students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who first took an OpenLearn course fared better in subsequent courses than those who didn’t.

The university’s chief executive, Martin Bean, is an Australian-born U.S. citizen who previously was general manager of Microsoft’s Worldwide Education Products Group. Bean said OpenLearn provides university survival skills.

“This is all about making sure that people have the competencies to succeed,” Bean said.

At its campus in Milton Keynes, halfway between London and Birmingham, the university develops online courses using eye-tracking gear, banks of recording equipment, heart-rate monitors and focus groups monitored from behind one-way glass.

Inspired by an American series of radio lectures, Open University delivered its first classes via television in 1971. Today it’s the largest university in Britain; it has 195,000 students there and 55,000 others in the rest of the world.

The university is partially credited with increasing the proportion of 18- to 24-year-old Britons with some level of higher education, which has gone from 14 percent in 1970 to 45 percent today. More than 60 percent of Open University’s students are women, and 70 percent work while enrolled. The median age is 31.

University officials said they aim to reach people who need a boost of confidence.

Emma Shiers, one such student, said her family told her when she was growing up that she wouldn’t amount to much.

Shiers, 33, tried her hand at an OpenLearn course, found she was capable of college-level work, and graduated with a degree in June.

She’s now a senior manager at a legal-advice agency in Coventry. Explaining why that first course clicked, she said: “I could do it at home. I didn’t have to attend lectures, so nobody would realize how thick I was, and I wouldn’t have to answer embarrassing questions or be picked on.”

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. Next week on the Education page: a look at a college building boom in India.

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