developmental students

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ITC ELearning 2012 and the Grand Debate

In February, 2012, I was fortunate to be selected as one of the debaters in the ITC ELearning Conference Grand Debate. The debate statement for this year (2012) was, “Developmental Education students cannot learn online ” and my opponent was the honorable Fred Feldon from Coastline Community College. I was arguing AGAINST the statement and Fred was arguing FOR. The event is intended to be informative yet entertaining and humorous as well. I feel like Fred and I accomplished all of these goals. If I can get a link to the video, will include it here.

The debate followed the format of:

  • initial vote on the statement (most people took the “no” position)
  • initial comments by each debater
  • rebuttal by each debater
  • closing comments
  • final vote (hard to tell…Fred did a lot of lobbying at the end for votes :-0) )


Before we get to the question at hand for today…I did want to say to Dean (reference to Dr. Dean Kohrs who wrote “Hacking College”)…I am truly sorry that you had a life-scarring experience with fractions. If you ever want to reframe that experience, I encourage you to enroll in my online arithmetic class through Scottsdale Community College.


The question up for debate today is, “Can Developmental Students Succeed Online?”

I am NOT going to start by saying that the question is absurd or that the question should have been asked perhaps 15 years ago back when online learning was first taking hold (or was it 20).

What I am going to do is try and convince you that Developmental Math students can and ARE succeeding online, right now, and that the best thing we can do as educators is to put aside the debate (except for today of course) as to whether DE CAN be taught online and engage in the discussion about the ways to do so most effectively. In other words, I am already making the assumption that I have your vote and I am hoping to make you glad that you made the right choice.

In a gesture of full disclosure and transparency (I’ll get to my tax returns later!), I want to say for the record that teaching online is NOT my favorite mode of teaching. I am not a Zealot about teaching online, I am a Realist. Given the choice, I would much rather interact with a room of 30 smiling, happy faces eager to learn mathematics than interact online via whiteboard or chatroom.

Face it…teachers are control freaks (or control freaks become teachers or something like that) and during my time each week on the stage with my f2f students, I am in complete control of what goes into their ears and attaches in their brain. When they take my class online, who knows what they might pay attention to? I mean, might they actually learn some things that I did not directly teach them about mathematics? Oh, the horror!

But, back to the question at hand…“Can Developmental Students Succeed Online?”

My first answer to that question, if asked in polite company, would be (first a long pause) then…”Yeeesssss”. Aren’t students already having success taking dev ed online (followed of course by the look of surprise and the extreme shoulder shrug and arm movements)?…it’s the grown up of version of DUH or REALLY.

Seriously, though. Let’s look at some numbers to see what all the fuss is about. At my college (Scottsdale Community College in Arizona), I had our most recent successful completion numbers pulled. You have to be careful with the numbers too…not all are reported the same way! Anyway, from SP2009 – SP2011, we had 10,160 students enrolled in dev ed courses (math, reading, english). Courses were offered in three modes: InPerson, Online (mostly math), and Hybrid. InPerson had a successful completion rate of 61% (that’s C or better from students in the class after drop/add), 57% for Online, and 67% for hybrid. So, Really? We are so worried about a 4% success difference that we think students can’t succeed online and that we should stop offering the option? I mean, 57% success online is nothing to be proud of but if the online learning % was our batting average in baseball, we would be winning major awards! Ok, I know, online learning is not baseball but If anything, we should be asking why hybrids are so much more successful than either of the other modes of delivery. Maybe hybrid is the holy grail of learning mode we have sought after for so long (but that is fuel for another debate!)

Reason #2 goes like this….“Can Developmental Students Succeed Online?”…YES …SOME OF THEM HAVE NO OTHER CHOICE

Desperation is a great motivator and is a close silbing of need with survival as the parent. Students need better jobs to support themselves and their families so that their family unit can survive. Increased opportunities for employment often come with greater levels of education.

The Catch-22 for many students is that they must work now to pay the bills and earn money so they can go to school so that they can earn more money to pay the bills. When can they attend class? I’ve never hear of midnight college (is there one)? Twice a week or four times per week day classes are great for Traditional Students, but how many traditional students are in YOUR classes these days? With our ever improving economy (that’s a joke), are we likely to see hoards of traditional students returning to our classrooms? So what are the new “traditional” students supposed to do?

Enter ONLINE learning. Manna from heaven! A dream come true. They can work full time or more AND still go to school. For some students, the one or two classes they take online can make the difference in a pay grade or job opportunity or get them that much closer to their college or career track courses.

Finally, I would like to offer a third response and that is this…“Can Developmental Students Succeed Online?” Yes …if their online class is designed with student success in mind AND the instructor is willing to do everything needed to facilitate that success. Wow. Online instructional design and Instructor behaviors…two VERY big areas that need way more time than what I have here today (did you attend my preconference workshop on Saturday?)
Seriously, though, course design and personnel selection are HUGE when it comes to online learning success. By course design, I am speaking of design elements beyond just the layout of the class…I am talking about interaction elements and requirements and feedback elements. The course has to be set up to provide as much instant feedback to students as possible. Dev ed students especially need to build confidence through regular, guided practice and support. Good online design can facilitate that.

From an instructor standpoint, I am going to say out loud here in from of all you, my peers, something I have keep inside for years and years and that is this…just because an instructor is good in the classroom does NOT automatically mean they will be good online (either in design or in delivery) AND just because an instructor is good in a college-level class does NOT mean they are appropriate to teach Dev Ed (either online OR in person). If an instructor is not willing to spend hours and hours communicating, interacting, and being available for online students (all hours of the day and night and weekends), then online learning is not a good fit and their students will suffer. You can’t bring the same approach to an online classroom that may be brought to a traditional one (M – F only, 8 – 2 email, etc…). Just as the students have to be more proactive…so does the instructor.

Whew! I feel like I just ran a 10-minute sprint! So let’s quickly recap…

“Can Developmental Students Succeed Online?”
They are already
For some there is no other choice
It can be done with proper design and proactive instructors
Thank you for your time and your vote! My name is Donna Gaudet and I approve this message.


In my first segment, I gave you three reasons that Developmental Students can succeed online.

In this segment, what I hope to do is provide a few reasons why I believe that offering online courses to our Dev Ed students is not only possible but is an absolute imperative.

First, the demand for these classes should drive our institutional planning. Distance learning is the fastest growing segment of the higher ed student population. Budgets at most of our nation’s colleges are shrinking. We are asked to do more with less…less money to pay teachers (both FT and PT)…less money to build new buildings or otherwise create new space…things are pretty much status quo OR shrinking. How can we ignore the one segment of our enrollment population that is consistenlty growing from year to year? How can we not take this growth as a mandate that our students want and NEED the educational opportunities that online learning provides?

Second, if we don’t offer these classes, other types of “institutions” will. The demand for dev ed classes is not going away. If anything, as more people turn to education in an attempt to gain skills for employment, we may see more and more students attending college. If we don’t offer the college prep courses that the students need, in the formats they can take them in, who do you think will?

Third, colleges that want higher success numbers for dev ed online need to support their students beyond just putting the classes on the schedule. Is there a mandatory orientation for these students? Is there an attempt to place the right students into online classes? Is an Early Alert system in place to identify students in trouble? How does the college support its online students outside the classroom?

And Fourth, teachers absolutely must have comprehensive support to develop and teach online classes.  Most of the teachers I know that teach online were in the Innovators or Early Adopters group that were interested in teaching online. They got in there, played around, made a lot of mistakes, and generally figured things out the hard way. These folks make up a very small percentage of individuals at an institution (about 17% according to Everett Rogers). What about the rest? Those that come later to a technology or technological process usually need a lot more support and help getting going. What kind of support is provided by their institution? Training? Mentoring? Pay for development? Is a tool like Quality Matters employed to give them a framework for online development and design? These are all questions that must be addressed by any institution hoping to succeed in working with ANY students online…much less those taking dev ed courses.

Education is changing…and alternative forms of delivery are just the first sign of things to come. I challenge you…to step not into the future but into the now. Look around you and see who are your students of today. Eject the disk in your head that wants your students to learn the way YOU learned. Accept that multiple ways of delivering all classes, not just dev ed, are appropriate and can be successful.

I would like to close my comments with some help from my current students. A few of them took the time to write you a message…about why they can succeed online.

Student #1 – I am a mother of two boys in Jr. High and if it were not for online learning I would never be able to attend school. We are all trying our best but you can’t expect us to thrive and succeed when there is only one way. Give up your careers, give up your families.

Student #2 – I don’t think I would have done as well as I did last semester if it hadn’t been for these “”online classrooms, distance learning” or whatever you choose to call it.  for me, there is no other choice, not only does it work with my schedule (I am a wife, a mother and Im looking for employment in my field) and my location (I live 50 miles each way from the school in a location without busses and my husband and I have 1 vehicle) I just find it easier to sit down when its on my terms.  Anyone who has never tried it, should.  Then if you don’t like it or it doesn’t work for you, then you can feel free to comment, but “don’t knock it, till you try it.”

Student #3 – I was terrified of math and in a traditional setting, I actually didn’t finish my associate’s degree because I was afraid of math. When I discovered online algebra classes, I felt empowered to go back to school. I could create my own schedule within the class structure to study. I have found that I learned math a level I never thought possible. I finally have the chance to obtain that bachelor’s degree I always wanted. Next up is a master’s degree!”

Strong words..and strong feelings from students who are succeeding online in developmental mathematics.