Early returns show that massive open online courses (MOOCs) work best for motivated and academically prepared students. But could high-quality MOOCs benefit a broader range of learners, like those who get tripped up by remedial classes?
That’s the question the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants to answer  with a newly announced round of 10 grants for the creation of MOOCs for remedial coursework.
“We’re trying to seed the conversation and seed the experimentation,” said Josh Jarrett, the foundation's deputy director for education and postsecondary education.
MOOCs tend to provoke strong feelings in the academy, and in the wake of Gates's announcement this week, some observers questioned whether free, widely available online courses could be tailored to students with remedial needs. But others, including experts on developmental learning, welcomed the attempt to tackle one of higher education’s most vexing problems.
“This has the potential for raising the quality of instruction in developmental education, if used properly,” said Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education.
The foundation seeks applications for MOOCs with content that focuses on a “high-enrollment, low-success introductory level course that is a barrier to success for many students, particularly low-income, first-generation students.”
That's a tall order, said Amy Slaton, an associate professor of history at Drexel University. MOOCs are about economies of scale, she said, which are not compatible with the personalized support remedial students typically require to succeed. Doing high-touch teaching on the cheap "doesn't work in the real world," said Slaton, an expert on technical education and workforce issues. "When you spend more, more kids learn."
Slaton said the foundation's goals are well-intentioned, but that "they are buying into these very naïve ideas about how technology works in education."
The winning entrants will be eligible for one-year grants of up to $50,000. Only nonprofit colleges in the U.S. can apply. But that's probably because of red tape that comes with charitable giving to corporations or foreign colleges.
Applicants also must work with an established MOOC platform that has previously hosted courses taken by at least tens of thousands of students, according to the announcement. Candidates might include several for-profit ventures, like the high-profile Coursera and Udacity MOOC providers, as well as MOOC-ready platforms offered by Blackboard and Kaplan Higher Education.
The reason Gates is requiring the use of a proven platform, Jarrett said, is that designing a MOOC is only half the battle. For the courses to work, colleges must “get people to come and engage” – lots of people.
MOOCs are just a tool, Jarrett said. And several components of higher education, including remediation, could possibly be “MOOCified,” he said. The foundation hopes to do that through experimenting and learning with introductory courses. And Jarrett said he doesn’t expect quick answers.
“The jury will be out on MOOCs for at least a couple years,” he said.
Studying What Works
Higher education reformers are keen to find fixes for remedial education, some of them aggressive state policies , because students who are assigned to the courses are unlikely to make it to graduation. Only one in four students in remedial classes will eventually earn a degree from a community college or transfer to a four-year college, research has found.
Boylan said the Gates proposal was promising because it seeks to study how the courses work, with research components on what is effective for whom and under what circumstances. Those are questions “too few agencies have asked” about remediation more broadly, he said, even though more research is “desperately needed.”
Paul LeBlanc agrees. The president of Southern New Hampshire University, a private college with a rapidly expanding online footprint, said the grant announcement asks research questions that seek to better define where MOOCs can be effective, and where they can’t.
“The innovations so far exhibited with MOOCs are all about opening up elite brands to the masses and education for free,” he said via e-mail. “Neither of those innovations, which so captivates the press and others, actually addresses the real tough teaching and learning challenges at the heart of remedial education.”
Gates has funded other efforts  to encourage the development and distribution of open courseware for underserved student groups.This time around the foundation seeks proposed courses that would help students in three scenarios: when they are already enrolled in introductory classes and would use MOOCs as study aids, when MOOCs can be used in conjunction with classroom-based courses, and when students who enroll solely in a MOOC and hope to earn formal credit for their work.
In its call for research on the courses, the foundation said it is “cautiously optimistic” that MOOCs could help a broad range of students, including those seeking credit, but notes that “there is still much the field had yet to learn about MOOCs.”
Boylan said there is no reason to think that free online courses couldn’t work in remedial settings.
Some proven remedial course material is computer-based, and relies on a “modular” approach  where students click through self-paced computer programs, relying on instructors to help teach them concepts when needed, rather than in a lecture format. For example, Pearson’s popular MyMathLab works this way.
“The options they’re proposing here can presumably work,” said Boylan.
However, he said students with developmental needs often struggle with reading, and can require one-on-one help. But MOOCs could incorporate added supports, like individual attention, according to the grant announcement.
Jarrett said the foundation plans to wrap plenty of research around the winning course designs, much of it conducted by experts beyond the campuses hosting the MOOCs. Those studies will be publicly available, he said, in the spirit of open educational resources.
"We're definitely thinking about what research needs to be done and who should do it," he said.
Slaton, however, was dubious about how the research component of the grants might work. Colleges can struggle to maintain neutrality in self-studies, she said, adding that student participation in the MOOCs would probably include elements of self-selection. And colleges with winning MOOCs will want to look good in their work with Gates, in part to be in the running for other grants.
Overall, she said the call for applications was too vague and "glancing" in its approach. And while seeking more research on MOOCs is decidedly a good thing, Slaton said "let's do it in a way that's substantial and thoughtful."
In order to ensure that remedial MOOCs are of high quality, the foundation said applications must feature faculty with strong subject matter expertise and teaching chops. But the colleges’ technical know-how might matter more.
“In courses mediated by technology, how the course is designed and delivered is at least as important as, if not more important than, the content itself,” according to the foundation.
A commonly voiced concern of faculty members about MOOCs is that technocrats might see the courses as an easy way to replace professors, likely sacrificing academic quality in the process.
One possible outcome of the Gates’ proposal would be for colleges to use the freely available MOOCs that emerge as substitutes for their own introductory or remedial courses. But the grant application also suggests several ways colleges could co-opt whatever comes out of the work. In addition to suggesting the courses as study guides, the foundation said MOOCs could be developed as hybrid courses, to be used alongside other classes. And in that scenario, the grant application requires that blended MOOC content be made available to community colleges at price of no more than 10 percent of the host college’s tuition.
LeBlanc applauds the foundation for putting remediation front and center in its consideration of MOOCs. However, he remains a skeptic about MOOCs being effective as developmental courses,
The particular challenges of remediation are “bound up in the messy parts of education,” said LeBlanc, including “confidence, support determination and the other human dimensions of learning that have little to do with the quality of content, the status of the provider or the cost of the program.”