A web-based learning program developed by Carnegie Mellon University that tracks student progress and provides virtual tutors for students is being expanded to 40 community colleges in an effort to raise course completion by 25 percent.

The university’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI), first funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in 2002, secured more than $4 million to launch the community college project, which will enable 50 to 100 classrooms to use Carnegie Mellon’s OLI courseware, which keeps tabs on what concepts students are grasping in their online work and lets professors tailor their lectures to help students in areas where they struggle.

Research universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made their coursework freely available to the public online this decade, but simply accessing lecture slides and class readings doesn’t guarantee the same learning experience of a student in a lecture hall, said Candace Thille, Carnegie Mellon’s OLI director.

"Instruction involves a lot more than just having the material," Thille said. "Anyone who has ever taken a class can tell you that."

The OLI community college outreach will include campuses in Washington, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia.
At a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) August workshop focusing on broadband in education, Joel Smith, Carnegie Mellon’s CIO and vice provost, said the OLI program separates itself from other web-based learning models because it helps students check their progress as they move from lesson to lesson.

OLI courses "remind [students] of key principles and give new problems to make sure there is understanding," Smith said.

In an OLI pilot program used in a freshman introductory course, students who used OLI lessons did better on standardized tests, and professors were able to cover an entire semester’s worth of work in half the time, Smith said. Non-OLI students met twice as often for in-person classes compared to their peers in the pilot.

When OLI was used at a large state university, students enrolled in the program had a 99-percent course-completion rate–more than twice the completion rate of 41 percent in the school’s non-OLI course.

Community college classes that have used OLI courseware–which is often used in a blended learning model, where students do most of their work online, but also meet weekly for traditional class time–saw students cover 33 percent more material and achieve a 13-percent learning gain compared to non-OLI students, Smith said at the August FCC meeting. 

Thille said Carnegie Mellon technology officials are always improving OLI content, because the program is consistently evaluated to ensure students are getting the reinforcements and supplements that are missing from many web-based learning programs.

"We refine it based on what worked and what didn’t work in the prior version," she said.

Campus technology officials said Carnegie Mellon’s online-learning program could become a national model worthy of duplication. Free online course material has marked a major step in making education available to the public, officials said, but including built-in guidance for students sets a new standard for colleges of any size.

"I’m particularly impressed with OLI, because it retains what we know is most important in online learning, and that’s engagement," said Ray Schroeder, director of the University of Illinois’s Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning. "The courses are built so an institution can provide the kind of interaction that we’ve found has really enhanced learning."

The Obama administration in July proposed a $500 million program that would develop more online classes and make them available to college students. Models like Carnegie Mellon’s OLI could become available to colleges and universities across the country if the federal funding comes to fruition.

While community colleges watch their enrollment numbers boom during the economic recession, Schroeder said comprehensive online learning programs like OLI could help campus decision makers cater to students once lecture hall seats run out.

"This may be a part of their solution," he said. "Other [online programs] are not nearly as complete."

Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System — composed of 58 campuses statewide — said two-year schools often struggle to maintain high course-completion rates during enrollment booms because non-traditional students have a higher dropout rate than traditional students do.

"We have to find a way to provide them with the type of support that makes sure they actually complete the course," said Ralls, adding that the OLI model could be used in North Carolina colleges as early as next school year. "We have to be attuned to finding these kinds of solutions."

Links:

Open Learning Initiative

FCC broadband workshop webcast


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