‘Open’ classes build confidence, success

Britain’s Open University, which offers free online Open Learn classes to all comers, is being imported to the U.S. to help “ill-prepared, self-conscious” students adapt to college work, according to the Hechinger Report.

Students placed into low-level reading, writing or math — especially math — rarely succeed, researchers have found. Most give up.

“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 de-motivating,” said Josh Jarrett, a former software entrepreneur who heads the postsecondary-education program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

. . . The foundation, through a collaborative, multi-year initiative called Next Generation Learning Challenges, has invested $750,000 to adapt two free Open University, at-your-own-pace online courses for use at about a dozen U.S. colleges and universities this academic year: one meant to make students comfortable with math so they do better on placement tests or move more quickly through remedial courses, and another to teach them study skills and other things they’ll need to know to be ready for college.

“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 Daniel Symancyk, a math professor and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Anne Arundel (Community College), one of the places where the pilot program is being tested as part of Anne Arundel’s goal of doubling its number of graduates by 2020.

In Britain, students are building confidence in free OpenLearn courses, then moving on to earn degrees, says Patrick McAndrew, Open University’s associate director for learning and teaching. Low-income students who start in Open Learn are more likely to complete a degree.

The university has been a pioneer in distance learning since its first students were enrolled 40 years ago. Inspired by an American series of radio lectures, OU delivered its first classes on black-and-white television. Today it’s the largest university in Britain, with 195,000 students—and a quarter of a million worldwide—and more than 5,000 faculty and staff who develop and manage the university’s more than 750 nine-month online courses and all of their related multimedia components, from podcasts to chat-rooms.

Most OU students are working adults. The median age is 31. Many are “scared” of college, said George Marsh, head of the university’s Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum. Free online classes can give “students a taste of being good students and competent students and confident students.”

Online courses are more challenging for community college students, according to a Washington state study by the Community College Research Center. Online students were more likely to drop out than those who took the same courses in conventional classrooms.

“There’s really no substitute for having a good teacher who is personable and can help students overcome some of that anxiety,” said Symancyk, the dean at Anne Arundel. “There are plenty of math books in libraries and people can go and read them, but it’s not the same. When you’ve got a good teacher who’s sensitive to the needs of the students, it can help people overcome their fears. So I think the challenge of these materials will be to do that.”

Jarrett agreed that there’s “a healthy skepticism and, in some cases, an outright resistance” to providing education online. “I think that’s a product of some early efforts of online education overpromising and under-delivering.”

“Blended learning,” which combines face-to-face and online learning, is “what most people think is the path of the future,” Jarrett said.