There is an extensive amount of literature documenting the the weaknesses of traditional development ed, and describing the consequences that its shortcomings have had for institutions and underprepared students. We respect all of the work that is being done to improve the status quo, and the dedication of faculty and staff in helping get students through their first-year experience using existing resources; we’re hoping our contribution–combining elements of new pedagogical approaches with advances in data analytics–is viewed as an new approach to the problem that builds on the work of others. We do need to emphasize here that PreparED, by itself, was not designed to replace dev ed programs, but to supplement them and extend basic skills remediation across the first-year curriculum.
Our thinking and strategizing around the challenges of and opportunities for using technology to help improve the chances of success for the underprepared student, along with what the higher ed establishment has done in response as they enter the institution, has led us to the following observations:
(1) we saw that more students placed into dev ed programs drop out of college before completing them, and becoming eligible to take college English and Math courses. Dev ed courses are typically non-credit, taught on-ground, and repeat a high school curriculum. Most of those students have jobs, families, or other obligations, and requiring them to attend scheduled classes creates a barrier that many students can’t overcome . . . and they drop out in frustration. Self-paced, online programs that give the student agency over their remediation could potentially make a difference for many students.
(2) we noted that almost every academic institutions has a minimum “basic skills” requirement for graduation or transfer: taking an passing a college English course, and an intermediate-level algebra course. Placement tests upon entry are designed to identify the students that are not ready to take these, and send the unprepared into dev ed courses to make them eligible for enrolling in them. In doing so, students go through essentially the same curriculum as they did in high school, even if the college pathway they’ve chosen does not require any practical math, or higher-level composition. Does producing a well-rounded college graduate necessarily need to include the ability to factor polynomials or work with logarithms? Perhaps focusing only on the basic skills needed to pass a specific Gen Ed course, rather than all of those necessary to become eligible for college English/Math, could help keep more at-risk students in school.
(3) we sensed that there is a motivational dynamic at work that could be taken advantage of: for many underprepared students, taking beginning algebra in high school, they were there because “I have to be,” but now, entering college, they’ve made the decision to identify as a college student. What if we took advantage of that new internal motivation that many underprepared students have, initially, towards making sure they’re prepared for college coursework? Having dev ed programs that recognize that motivation levels of new students to become prepared are higher, yet are perishable, could help us keep them in school while they remediate during that critical first year.
(4) we were influenced by Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s work with students around mindsets, and the emerging science around gamification (which is essentially focused on identifying and using positive and negative motivational principles to increase engagement). For students who have previously fared poorly in math, building in features that help convince them that, with the right effort, they can succeed in math courses, by itself can raise performance levels and results; building gamification features into remedial curricula could potentially keep students attempting remediation longer and with more effort, than just repeating high school curricula.
(5) we were told that a truly impactful, new remediation approach needs to be scalable across the institution. That means, by definition, that the delivery requirements can’t stress the institution’s infrastructure, that the setup and operation costs can be funded, that the load on faculty is kept very manageable, and as more underprepared students are brought in, the cost per participating student decreases. Using digital delivery, on top of existing LMS infrastructure, is a given; using Open Educational Resources (OER), despite some lingering misgivings as to quality, is the only way to keep content costs manageable. Having surveyed the available remedial content across the internet, we saw that there are many instructors–at the high school, and community college level–producing high quality, entertaining content that was pedagogically sound, and free of cost. The challenge is to curate those from the many thousands available, while ensuring that they meet ADA guidelines and are compact enough for mobile devices.
(6) we knew that the current generation of students coming into college are almost universally technology-savvy, or at least fluent in the predominant social applications and and use of mobile device technology. Any new, impactful remediation approach should consider that these students react positively to educational content that is engaging, short-form, not too polished but with satisfactory production values, featuring teachers that can explain concepts that they didn’t get in high school in a different way. We also know that they want to be able to consume educational content on-the-go, to suit their lifestyles and schedules. So any new approach must deliver its content on multiple devices, and do so not just over wireless but cellular connections.
(7) we knew from our experience, and loads of research, that formative assessment would need to play a major role in making the system effective as a tool for students to self-remediate. We concluded that for a self-paced, self-directed remediation program, assessment’s primary role of helping a student, through self-testing, to navigate through the curated remediation content, and be there to show them where their basic skills deficits are–not to serve as a gate, or as authentic assessment that would serve as a scorecard–and always be serving the student’s objective of self-remediating.
(8) we recognized from our decades of work with faculty that any such new approach–where the remediation would happen alongside the course, at a pace set individually by students themselves–needed to provide visibility to the instructor as to a student’s progress, and allow an instructor, if they felt it necessary, to modify the remediation path (including content) to suit the core course that it is alongside. While faculty should not have to actively involve themselves in a student’s self-remediation, or modify the content, they should have data that allows them to intervene if they feel it appropriate, or have access to data that enables them to change gears and cover a “basic skills” topic if they saw enough of their students struggling with it.
(9) we also recognized that the problem of the underprepared student has worsened over the years, and that Gen Ed faculty are dealing with a student body that is, overall, less prepared than a generation ago. Any new approach should also be able to tell instructors how “college-ready” their students are, so that instructors have evidence to help explain why course outcomes may not be as high as administrators might expect, and not just anecdotal data. That same data should also be able to identify exactly where the basic skills gaps are, by student, as the instructor begins the course, and during its conduct over the term.
(10) finally, we knew that administrators, and their institution’s outcomes, are now subject to a higher level of public reporting than ever before. Any new approach to basic skills preparedness needs to meet a number of criteria in order to be accepted and successful within an institution: scalability, low cost per student, faculty acceptance, real-time access to student progress data, an engaging student experience, and congruency with the college’s existing dev ed programs. Over time, incorporating a program with those attributes into an overall college-readiness program may help drive improved persistence rates, higher retention, and a better college experience for students at institutions that adopt it.
With those in mind, we set about a project that incorporated the “new approach” principles that we arrived at, per the above, to build PreparED. The team consisted of engineers developed the course curation and delivery platform that PreparED is built upon–a platform has been used to host courses that have been taken by over one million students over the past four years.
PreparED was conceived by the team from CBT (the Collaborative Brain Trust) is a specialty educational consulting firm that has worked for the past ten years with many community colleges and four-year institutions in California and across the US on academic master planning, accreditation, enrollment and retention strategies, and various policy matters around student equity, and around improving student success. CBT has over 200 consultants on staff, comprised of ex-CEOs, provosts, deans, and executive staffers from around the country, several of whom (including Jill Wakefield, the driver behind the iBEST initiative in Washington State) are leaders in the area of remedial policy. CBT developed the framework for the Math, English, and Study Skills/Critical Thinking units that form the foundation of PreparED, and used its network of faculty and experts to curate the content found in the program. The criteria used to curate the over-600 pieces of OER content (98% of which consists of video-based tutorials) found in PreparED included:
– is the instructional content short-form, ie, under ten minutes?
– is the content pedagogically sound?
– is the instructor friendly and engaging?
– does the content address a single topic?
– is the content close-captioned?
– are the production values reasonably high?
– is the level of instruction appropriate for an underprepared, yet adult, learner?
These are the criteria that are panel of curators considered in curating the content found in PreparED. For faculty using PreparED in their course, there are instructor-side tools that can be used to delete or add other OER content, if an instructor feels the need to do so.
Lastly, PreparED includes a set of standard reports, and dashboards, designed so that faculty have visibility into how students are engaging with the PreparED content, and how they are progressing with their self-remediation. From those dashboards, instructors can make decisions as to whether intervening with a student is required or called for, and send the results to Student Success staff if that suggests itself as the best course of action for a student struggling with a basic skills concept. These dashboards are also a help in determining the initial level of preparedness of an instructors class, and while the class is ongoing, whether or not a modification to a lecture or module is appropriate given the basic skills preparedness of the students in the class for that course’s concept or material.