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Open University
Daniel Conn (Photo by Jon Marcus)

BRIGHTON, England—When he was 14, Daniel Conn was part of a circle of friends so bright they programmed computer code for fun. One of his classmates went on to work in financial services, while another opened his own business.

But when Conn tried college, he said, “I lost confidence in myself. The exams came and I just freaked out. So I stopped the whole lot.” Every year, he said, he would write to universities for a prospectus, “get completely daunted, and throw it away.”

It was by accident that Conn, now 28, stumbled across free courses offered over the Internet as an experiment by Open University, a British online public university. Not having to pay to try them removed one major obstacle for him; after all, he said, “You’re not going to lose any money.” He could also study where and when he wanted, which helped, too, since he works full time at a car dealership in his English seaside hometown.

Most important of all, Conn found, he was no longer worried he might fail.

“No one would even know that I was looking at the page,” he said over a pint in a Brighton pub. “After a few months, it was, I can actually do this.”

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Conn felt reassured enough to enroll at the university, where he is now pursing a degree in information technology and computing, with a specialty in software development. And the idea of free online courses pioneered in Britain has been so successful, it is being imported to the United States to confront one of the biggest challenges in American higher education: helping ill-prepared, self-conscious students adapt to and succeed in college.

“The idea is to help people who are put off by the system,” said Patrick McAndrew, Open University’s associate director for learning and teaching.

In America, that means the huge numbers of students arriving at community colleges and universities, many of them already intimidated, who are immediately forced to take remedial courses in math. Such classes cost money but are usually ineligible for financial aid and don’t offer academic credit, thwarting the educational ambitions of countless people who give up before they’ve even started—and this at a time when a push is on to increase the percentage of Americans with a college degree.

Open University
Patrick McAndrew (Photo courtesy Open University)

Nearly two-thirds of first-year students in the United States have to take at least one remedial class in math or other subjects before they can enroll in college-level courses. Of those who need the most remedial math work, only 16 percent complete the course requirements within three years. Some portion of the rest are assumed to have dropped out.

It’s not only the students who are affected. Remediation—also called “developmental education”—costs community colleges as much as $2.3 billion and four-year universities a collective $500 million a year, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“This has become a nationwide epidemic, and it’s gotten to be a very expensive problem,” said Robyn Toman, a math professor at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, where more than 70 percent of students need remedial courses—98 percent of them in math. “Remedial math has become the largest single barrier to student advancement. For a lot of students, it literally kills their dream.”

Educators say one of the biggest reasons for this turns out to be one of the hardest to quantify: students’ self-doubt.

“You take a student who doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence, you give them a placement test, and you tell them they have to take three semesters of math—that’s pretty de-motivating,” said Josh Jarrett, a former software entrepreneur who heads the postsecondary-education program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “If we don’t fix this, it’s going to be impossible to improve the success rate.”

The foundation, through a collaborative, multi-year initiative called Next Generation Learning Challenges, has invested $750,000 to adapt two free Open University, at-your-own-pace online courses for use at about a dozen U.S. colleges and universities this academic year: one meant to make students comfortable with math so they do better on placement tests or move more quickly through remedial courses, and another to teach them study skills and other things they’ll need to know to be ready for college.

“Nothing succeeds like success, and in mathematics—especially developmental mathematics—getting the students to understand they really can be successful, that’s the most important step,” said Daniel Symancyk, a math professor and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Anne Arundel, one of the places where the pilot program is being tested as part of Anne Arundel’s goal of doubling its number of graduates by 2020.

Another school that’s part of the project, the mostly online University of Maryland University College, is providing links to the free, confidence-building courses through its online orientation and sending them to students who have to take math placement exams and remedial math classes.

At Open University, 13,000 students who have tried the so-called OpenLearn free courses in math and other topics have gone on to pursue degrees at the university, where most tuition-charging classes combine Internet instruction with audio, video, in-person and online study groups, tutors and tests. OU estimates that about half would not have come there otherwise. It also reports that those from low socioeconomic backgrounds have fared better in subsequent courses than those who didn’t first take an OpenLearn course.

“They’ve actually had a try,” McAndrew said in the high-tech building on the OU campus where the online courses are developed using eye-tracking gear, banks of recording equipment, heart-rate monitors and focus groups monitored from behind one-way glass. “They’ve had a chance to become more comfortable with us.”

The university has been a pioneer in distance learning since its first students were enrolled 40 years ago. Inspired by an American series of radio lectures, OU delivered its first classes on black-and-white television. Today it’s the largest university in Britain, with 195,000 students—and a quarter of a million worldwide—and more than 5,000 faculty and staff who develop and manage the university’s more than 750 nine-month online courses and all of their related multimedia components, from podcasts to chat-rooms. Starting next year, when much higher tuition rates take effect in England, Open University will charge £5,000 a year, or about $8,250, compared to a maximum of £9,000, or $14,850, at traditional English universities.

OU is at least partially credited with an increase in the proportion of 18- to 24-year-old Britons who have had some level of higher education, from 14 percent in 1970 to 45 percent today. More than 60 percent of its students are women, 70 percent work while enrolled, and the median age is 31.

Open University
Martin Bean (Photo courtesy Open University)

Those are among the targets of the free courses, said George Marsh, head of the university’s Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum. “They’re unthreatening,” Marsh said. “They’re aimed at people who are scared. What they’re really about is giving students a taste of being good students and competent students and confident students.”

OU’s chief executive, Martin Bean, an Australian-born American citizen who previously was general manager of Microsoft’s Worldwide Education Products Group, said he thinks of the online courses as providing college survival skills. “This is all about making sure that people have the competencies to succeed,” he said.

But while the idea behind the online courses is to let people work privately and at their own speed, there’s skepticism about this approach, too. Another study by the Community College Research Center found that students who took online courses were more likely to drop out than those who took the same courses in conventional classrooms.

“There’s really no substitute for having a good teacher who is personable and can help students overcome some of that anxiety,” said Symancyk, the dean at Anne Arundel. “There are plenty of math books in libraries and people can go and read them, but it’s not the same. When you’ve got a good teacher who’s sensitive to the needs of the students, it can help people overcome their fears. So I think the challenge of these materials will be to do that.”

Jarrett agreed that there’s “a healthy skepticism and, in some cases, an outright resistance” to providing education online. “I think that’s a product of some early efforts of online education overpromising and under-delivering.” Combining online and in-person education, he said—known as “blended learning”—is “what most people think is the path of the future.”

Still, Symancyk said, the problems are so bad that almost anything is worth a try.

“These materials have the potential to help people brush up on things they feel they need to know, or with the anxiety they have about math,” he said. “In a class, they may be afraid to put up their hand or ask a question. They’ll feel as if they’re exposing ignorance or weakness.”

That was the case for one Open University student, Emma Shiers, raised in public housing by a single mother. Her family, Shiers said, “thought I would be barefoot and pregnant by 16. ‘Emma won’t amount to much,’ they’d say.”

Open University
Emma Shiers (Photo courtesy Open University)

Shiers tried her hand at an OpenLearn course. “I could do it at home. I didn’t have to attend lectures, so nobody would realize how thick I was, and I wouldn’t have to answer embarrassing questions or be picked on, and I could do it on my own time,” she said.

She was emboldened to enroll at OU while working full time, graduated with a degree in June, and now is a senior manager at a legal-advice agency in Coventry.

Taking OpenLearn courses gave her the confidence to do that, Shiers said.

“They helped me prove to myself that I’m actually not that thick.”

A version of this story appeared in The Washington Post on December 26, 2011.

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