Wake Tech’s free online algebra course gets powerful response

mquillin@newsobserver.comMay 25, 2014 

— The course at Wake Tech this year with the highest enrollment – by a landslide – had no classroom, no meetings, no deadlines, was not for credit and the nearly 17,500 students who signed up for it paid no tuition.

But the class may prove to be invaluable in helping students get ready for community college.

Wake Tech’s Introductory Algebra Review is free and open to anyone who wants to take it, anywhere in the world, at any time. Rolled out in May 2013, it was the college’s first massive open online course, or MOOC, testing the usefulness of letting students choose the material they need to review and the pace at which they want to work through it.

The school, the first community college in the state to offer a MOOC, was so pleased with the results that it’s offering a chemistry MOOC this summer and plans to develop one in computer literacy.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the be-all, end-all, but it’s a powerful tool,” said Jason Whitehead, an instructor at Wake Tech whose chemistry MOOC will be available soon. He’s spent six months creating eight hours of video lessons and gathering other materials that will help students who want to get a basic understanding of what’s happening at the atomic level, Whitehead said.

MOOCs have been offered by more elite universities for several years, often in higher-level courses. Laura Kalbaugh, dean of Wake Tech’s Academic Success and Transition Resources Division, said the college wanted to try something different with the format. Using a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and working on a platform run by Udacity.com, instructors developed the algebra course for students who plan to attend Wake Tech or another school and want to score well on a proficiency or placement test.

Wake Tech has worked to increase its graduation and transfer rates by making it easier and faster for students who need help to get it in basic courses.

“Everybody can come” to a community college, said Tonya Forbes, Wake Tech’s associate vice president of arts and sciences. “But that doesn’t mean everybody is prepared to take college algebra or English 112. This gets them more prepared.”

The class also is good for current Wake Tech students who may need a refresher to help in other courses that rely on basic math skills.

Beyond the school’s own students, the course may be useful to homeschool students, parents who help their children with math homework, and anyone suddenly faced with a linear equation or the need to calculate the area of a cylinder.

To enroll in the algebra MOOC, students need only set up a free account at Udacity.com and enroll in the course, then choose the modules they want to study. It’s possible to take the modules in or out of sequence, and the work can be done in a couple of months, over a year or two, or never completed at all.

So far, about 1,000 people have completed the algebra MOOC, Kalbaugh said, in keeping with an average completion rate of about 6 percent for such courses.

“They’re free,” Forbes said, “so some people sign up and never come back.”

To save money on the development side, the school will offer its chemistry and future MOOCs through Blackboard, a portal Wake Tech students already use. That course and others the school is planning also will be free, and students can enroll at any time of the year and do the work at any hour.

Once they’re set up, Wake Tech’s MOOCs are designed to run themselves. Testing is automated, and except for feedback to see how students use the course and how well they like it, instructors don’t have to monitor participation.

Like the algebra course, the chemistry MOOC will work best for the self-motivated student, Whitehead said.

In developing the chemistry course, Whitehead attended an international conference in Texas last year and enrolled in more than a dozen other MOOCs.

“I wanted to see what made these things tick, how they were set up,” he said.

Unlike some other MOOCs, Wake Tech’s doesn’t include discussion leaders or boards that Whitehead said can turn into a form of social network.

“Each student is sort of an island,” Whitehead said. “It takes a lot of self-discipline to not stop if you hit a rough point. Essentially everything that you complete is governed by you.”

Quillin: 919-610-4865

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