Many first-year college students have a hard time lifting off the runway. The U.S. Department of Education has found that 68 percent of community college students and 40 percent of students at four-year public institutions had to take at least one remedial or developmental education course before enrolling in college-level classes.
First-generation college students, low-income students, and students from racial or ethnic minorities are especially at risk, trailing their peers in college readiness, reports ACT’s annual report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2017. These underserved students are no small population. They make up 46 percent of U.S. high school graduates who took the ACT in 2017.
“While it’s no surprise that underserved students fall behind their peers due to the inequities that exist, it is extremely alarming and concerning to see how large this achievement gap really is,” ACT Chief Executive Officer Marten Roorda said. “This gap presents a major risk to our nation’s goals for postsecondary completion and economic competitiveness.”
Can digital learning help close the college readiness gap?
Some believe the solution may be online learning, including MOOCs: massive open online courses. For community colleges, these can be a low-cost or free way to help developmental education students get to where they need to be, explains A. Sasha Thackaberry, Assistant Vice President of Academic Technology and New Learning Models for Southern New Hampshire University.
Retention rates are low, Thackaberry says: “In an end analysis, we had an 18.4 percent success rate.” But for many students, MOOCs worked — and the data produced is a boon for colleges. “Instead of just guessing about what might work for a student, we can determine what would be the best bet for getting that student college-ready, with effective skills about how to learn.”
For students who need remedial or developmental courses, or simply some academic reinforcement to help them succeed, several free, online resources are available.
With more than 12 million registered users, edX is the world’s second-largest MOOC provider. edX has sterling credentials: It was founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012 to make high-quality courses from leading universities and institutions available to a global community of learners. Both nonprofit and open source, edX is also a research giant, working “to shed light on how learners access information and master materials, with the ultimate aim of improving course outcomes.”
edX’s offerings are staggering in scope. Its most popular courses, for example, include an introduction to the Python programming language, Business Writing, and The Civil War and Reconstruction — among some 2,000 others. And it has introduced innovative partnerships with universities. One example is the Global Freshman Academy from Arizona State University. Participants can start taking classes for free, earn transferable ASU credit, and then pay tuition only if they earn a high enough grade.
The biggest MOOC provider of them all, Coursera charges for graded classes and certificates, but also offers a variety of free online courses. Instructors from prestigious universities share lectures with more than 25 million users. Coursera nudges users toward its paid offerings, so students should pay attention to what they’re signing up for.
Khan Academy is a nonprofit provider of online learning tools “to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.” Founder Salman Khan, a former hedge fund analyst, began tutoring his young cousin remotely in math. The effort grew into a collection of thousands of videos and online tutorials used by millions.
Khan Academy offers online learning tools primarily for school-age students, but also has higher-level courses in subjects such as algebra, calculus, organic chemistry and computer science. There’s also a section dedicated to helping students navigate college admissions, career choices, personal finance and entrepreneurship. A two-year study by the New England Board of Higher Education found that students in 12 community colleges required fewer remedial courses when they used Khan Academy.
The nonprofit Saylor.org is one of the original free online learning tools for college students, getting its start in 2008. Saylor offers 100 full-length courses at the college and professional levels, more than 30 of which may be eligible for college credit. Saylor maintains relationships with several college and university partners to provide students with flexible credit transfer pathways to degrees and credentials. Courses are more varied than the math- and science-focused offerings at Khan Academy; they include subjects such as art history, philosophy, political science, and sociology.
Udacity was born when Stanford instructors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig made their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course available online for free. Over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled. Story-based learning is the core of Udacity, which offers both free classes and paid “nanodegrees” in VR, data science, machine learning, Android, iOS and other tech-driven topics. Its most ambitious offering: the Flying Car Nanodegree Program, which seeks to train engineers in aerial robotics and intelligent air systems.
Udacity’s free courses are labeled by difficulty level, from beginner to advanced. They stretch from basic programming tutorials to a three-month course in machine learning. “We’ll show you how to train and optimize basic neural networks, convolutional neural networks, and long short term memory networks,” Udacity promises. Don’t expect to find any liberal arts courses here.