University of Wisconsin System officials today announced that UW-La Crosse will lead the development of a new “massive open online course” – MOOC – at the developmental math level, with a $50,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Once developed, the free online course, available to everyone, has the potential to help students enter college and graduate in higher numbers, in less time, at lower costs.

“For many first-generation college students and those from lower-income families, the need to repeat high school-level work in remedial courses is unnecessarily frustrating and demoralizing,” said UW-La Crosse Mathematics professor Robert Hoar, who will lead the project. “Even when they persist, those extra classes cost time and money. While most MOOCs available today cover the kind of information you’d find in upper-level courses, we believe this teaching-and-learning model can help many students prepare for and succeed in general education math classes, which are required by every major or program.”

Approximately 21% of all new freshmen in the UW System need some remedial math education when they enter college. Among under-represented minority students, the percentage is significantly higher (40%). Overall, this parallels national data that show about 25% of high school graduates do not have the necessary skills to succeed in college-level mathematics courses. While those who successfully complete remedial-level instruction at UW campuses go on to finish their college degrees in large numbers, only about 45% of incoming freshmen who need remedial math instruction complete this requirement.

“One of our main strategic goals is to help Wisconsin create a stronger workforce. Math skills are a key ingredient to success in college, and in work. Many students who have the drive to earn their UW degree are just missing that one piece of math confidence, and this can help,” said Mark Nook, senior vice president for academic and student affairs at UW System. “At the same time, this kind of teaching platform has the ability to help us lower instructional costs, reduce a student’s expenses, and increase efficiency.”

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UW-La Crosse will lead the development of a free online math course, available to a wide variety of learners, including high school students who want to assess their college readiness. Non-traditional-aged students may also take advantage of the free course before returning to college, or to improve their math skills in ways that advance career goals.

“This is a win-win for students successfully completing the program,” said UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow. “They will be able to take advanced classes sooner, allowing them to potentially graduate sooner — saving them and the university resources.”

The concept has already been tested, with promising results. Using start-up funding provided by UW System, UW-La Crosse launched the “Fast Track” pilot program in July 2012. The pilot involved 38 students whose test scores showed a need for developmental math instruction. Following the six-week online course, participants’ scores on the math placement exams increased significantly. All but one of the participants improved to the point where they could enter college-level math and science courses.

The award from the Gates Foundation will help the project personnel prepare for the large number of students that the MOOC is intended to support. Teams of online tutors will be trained and the set of learning materials will be expanded. To study the effectiveness of this learning format, the course development team will work with its partner, Desire2Learn, to design a high-quality student experience and to ensure that useful analytical data is collected by the learning platform.

The course instructor is Maggie McHugh, director of the Murphy Learning Center at UW-La Crosse. According to McHugh, who also taught the pilot program, “This MOOC provides for greater dissemination of the math knowledge and skills students need to succeed in college, providing more students access to college-level courses sooner in their academic career.”

“The math content in the course was developed to align with many of the Common Core State Standards needed for college readiness,” said Jennifer Kosiak, professor of Mathematics Education at the UW-La Crosse. “The skills and concepts covered in this course are found on key gateway exams, including the ACT, SAT and college placement exams.”

UW-La Crosse Provost Heidi Macpherson said, “This award is testament not only to the excellence of the Mathematics Department faculty and staff at UW-La Crosse but also our commitment to supporting students to achieve. It follows from the successful FastTrack program which saw unprecedented success levels for our incoming freshmen in attaining and in many cases exceeding the levels of math they needed to progress. We look forward to future success as this program grows and thank the Gates Foundation for its support and belief in our project.”