An End to the Classroom? Gates Foundation Bets on Effectiveness of Online Learning for Struggling Students

What if,instead of dragging themselves to (or sleeping through) introductory classes, students could attend these classes online, at their own convenience? After funding research and pilot projects for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) in advanced courses and highly technical fields, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a call for applications for ten grants of up to $50,000 each for colleges and universities designing and testing what are generally considered high-enrollment, low-success introductory-level courses. (See Gates Foundation: Grants for Higher Education). 

MOOCs have been a hallmark of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's education funding. Many of their recent projects, including nearly $9 million in grants to what the foundation calls breakthrough models in education, are programs that incorporate online learning in some fashion. Recipients included organizations such as Next Generation Learning Challenges and their Wave III program for secondary schools, and MIT and Edx, which produces online computer science courses. The University of Southern New Hampshire, which has been particularly enthusiastic about online learning recently, is also developing a self-directed, largely online associate's degree program. 

Unlike those previous courses, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hopes that the new MOOCs will help the most vulnerable students who tend to get lost in the sea of students in many freshman courses. The foundation is aiming not for robotics, but for beginning algebra and English composition. Program officers are particularly interested in courses with high numbers of students who are low-income, first generation, or from underperforming high schools. (Read director of education Daniel Greenstein's IP profile). 

Previous investment in MOOCs has been popular, though the educational results remain to be seen. Most of those enrolled have at least cursory knowledge of the subject. Introductory courses, however, are designed for novices. This means that even though some students may have taken similar courses before, most do not, or may have failed if they have. These students would benefit from the opportunity to have the in-person interaction that a classroom provides.

On the other hand, these classes might be so crowded that students don't have time to answer clarifying questions, let alone have discussions. If students would get lost and overlooked anyway, or neglect to attend entirely, perhaps the convenience of an online course would help them. Most of the previous MOOCs also involved a supplementary classroom component, which many of the applicants would likely be provided with as well. If nothing else, this new set of grants will test the flexibility of MOOCs and the ability of colleges to find new, innovative, and cost-effective ways to target vulnerable students.