Update: Online math program could boost learning

College officials nationwide are concerned about the number of recent high school graduates in need of remedial math courses, and some schools have turned to online programs that could preserve shrinking operating budgets.

The problem affects colleges of all types, but community colleges seem to be particularly hard hit. More than 60 percent of students in community colleges need some kind of remedial class—most often, math training—before they can take credit-bearing courses, according to recent studies. This comes with a price tag: A study published this summer shows that community colleges spend more than $1.4 billion on remedial courses every year.

The "Making the Grade, Version 3.0" study was conducted by Pearson, a company that specializes in digital curriculum for pre-kindergarteners through college-age students. Pearson also is the creator of MyMathLab, an online math program designed to help students in college math, including remedial courses.

Some see a solution to the problem in online tutorial programs that can bring students up to speed without tapping into school budgets or using full-time faculty.

MyMathLab and other similar online options offer students a self-paced system for catching up to basic college math standards, professors said. The program comes with textbooks offered by Pearson. The MyMathLab tutor Center – a tool that allows students to eMail or call qualified math instructors – is no extra charge. Access to the web site without purchase of a textbook is $57.

College officials said they have always expected adults returning to school to require remedial classes, but an old phenomenon is becoming an escalating problem: Recent high school graduates coming to campus often lack basic skills in algebra. 

"Remedial math courses are always one of the very large programs in community colleges," said George Boggs, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Community Colleges. "We’re getting more students in remedial courses … because math is one of the most prominent obstacles for student success. It’s not something [adult learners] tend to recall [as] easily as other subjects."

Bill Moore, a policy associate for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and director of the board’s transitional math project, said that while online math programs are valuable for self-disciplined students, professors can’t always trust students to work through math problems without prodding.

"It can be useful with some students, but there can be drawbacks and downsides," said Moore, who, since 2004, has worked with 15 Washington-based schools to better prepare students for college-level math. "The upside is it’s engaging for students, but it does require some additional self-motivation. Students can fall off the tracks. … Sometimes they need more intrusive supervision from teachers."

Online math tutorials, Boggs said, have shown sporadic success in colleges. As a California community college president in the earl 1990s, Boggs said he saw the school’s newly established math computer lab drive students to proficiency, while others failed to stay on task.

"One of the problems is it puts a lot of responsibility on students," he said. "We had a lot of students dropping out, because they couldn’t establish that kind of self-discipline."

Boggs said once the college put time limits on students’ computer-based math lessons—establishing a deadline for when students had to finish each lesson—students met remedial requirements more frequently.

Some educators are skeptical of online remedial math lessons, but many community colleges report seeing students’ performance bolstered by the internet-based tutorials. At Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz.—a school with most of its 50,000 students learning online—faculty math chair John Jensen has seen students take advantage of MyMathLab’s features, such as practice exams and video tutors that can be watched "over and over again," allowing distance learners to self-pace class curriculum. 

MyMathLab has offered students a more comprehensive math curriculum compared to Rio Salado’s previous computer-based math course, which used CDs instead of online material.

"I think it’s just an added benefit," said Jensen, who added that MyMathLab has improved student retention rates from 79 percent to 85 percent over the last year. "And it’s not just cost-effectiveness that drives this."

In a series of 2007 surveys published by Pearson, student responses showed that MyMathLab’s online homework in basic mathematics, introduction to algebra, and college algebra helped with test preparation and lesson retention. At Central Ohio Technical College, 81 percent of students surveyed said they preferred online math homework. Fifty percent of students said MyMathLab increased their understanding of course work "a lot," while 32 percent said "somewhat."

In interviews, community college professors said MyMathLab was also valuable in traditional math courses, not just remedial math classes. Beverly Vredevelt, math department chair at Spokane Falls Community College in Washington state, said the online program’s test-review material helped her class raise scores on a recent final exam.

"I would have to say that the students’ perception of the helpfulness of the program is generally good," she said in an eMail message to eSchool News.


Rio Salado College Online
Pearson’s Making the Grade study
American Association of Community Colleges