Online remedial classes get an A for effort but need work


Of the 45 students who started Roya Furmuly’s online remedial algebra class, just over half stayed until the end.

The instructor at Pierce College in Woodland Hills dropped about eight for attendance problems and about eight withdrew on their own. Of the 28 who remained, only 15 passed.

“We have a lot to figure out to make them more successful,” Furmuly said of the students.


Offering remedial classes online has become a key strategy for colleges and universities hoping to save money and move students out of basic skills classes into courses they get credit for. The ultimate goal is to get more students to graduate faster so they can make room for other students.

“In the traditional classroom, you’re paying for a teacher in front of a classroom, you’re paying for that building time,” said Stanford University education professor Eric Bettinger. “If we can cut costs for these types of programs, we might be in the position of offering something that has the same efficacy that would save money.

“There’s no evidence that it will perform better, but our hope is that it’s a cheaper delivery mechanism,” he said.

Some educators cite other benefits: Students in online classes have the flexibility to study on their own schedule and can skip the material they already know. Lectures and more difficult course work can be viewed repeatedly, and feedback on homework is instant.

But as Furmuly’s experience with Math 125 showed, there are significant pitfalls in the approach.

Some educators say online remedial classes are a bad fit for students who test far below college level and lack the self-motivation, study habits — or even the technical savvy — to complete the class.


They argue that those students who need the most personal attention end up getting the least in online classes.

“If you come to me and you’re reading at a sixth-grade level and hoping you get the feedback and instruction you need [online], you’re assuming a lot,” said Patti Levine-Brown, president of the National Assn. for Developmental Education, who has helped develop online courses around the country.

By all accounts, traditional remedial courses are failing the students they are intended to help.

In California’s community college system, 85% of entering freshmen need remedial English, 73% remedial math. Only about a third of these students end up transferring to a four-year school or graduating with a community college associate’s degree.

It’s a costly failure. The Cal State and community college systems are estimated to spend more than $530 million each year on remedial English, reading and math courses on their campuses.

Because of the increasing crowding at California’s public universities and colleges, Gov. Jerry Brown has been urging administrators to embrace online education.

Not only are those classes significantly cheaper, but they also can enroll many more students at the same time.

The classes are beginning to spring up around the state.

In January, San Jose State joined with the Silicon Valley education start-up Udacity to offer low-cost, entry-level classes, including remedial math. The goal is to use new teaching methods to help students pass these classes the first time.

Pierce College is planning a pilot project this fall offering three fully online remedial math classes.

“The question is to what extent they can work and in what kinds of conditions,” said Daniel Greenstein, director of postsecondary success strategies at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has awarded $3 million in grants to develop entry-level and remedial courses and evaluate the viability of using so-called massive open online courses.

“Underpinning our investment in this area is to see if there are benefits to be had when you take online technologies and tilt them to this kind of instruction,” he said.

For some students, the online courses are a great match.

Michelle Quan, who took the Pierce course, said sitting in a classroom for hours was overwhelming.

“After about an hour, I’m zoned out and want to go home,” said Quan, 20, a biology major. “And I tend to get shy asking questions in class. Online, any time you don’t understand a homework problem, there are always options and tools.”

Ryan Field, who also took the Pierce class, said the ability to study on his own time was a major plus. As he solved linear equations one evening on his laptop at home in Tarzana, he sometimes checked the score of a basketball game on TV.

“Doing this online gives me freedom to do the work when I want, at my own pace,” said Field, 19. “If I’m allowed to do that, I feel like I can do great.”

He got a B.

But it remains unclear whether online remedial courses work better for students than traditional instruction.

One study, by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that students who took remedial classes online were far more likely to withdraw or fail compared with students who took traditional classes. In basic English, for example, the failure and withdrawal rate was twice as high, according to the study.

Furmuly said remedial math is a particularly difficult subject to teach online. Many students with only basic skills, she said, don’t understand that they must be self-directed and not rely so much on the instructor.

“If we can change our assessment process and only allow selected students to an online class, then we may be more successful,” she said.

Furmuly’s math class is known as a hybrid — a combination of mostly online assignments and quizzes, plus on-campus instruction and a final exam. Students who didn’t keep up with their homework had to attend class twice a week.

Brenda Rios also got a good grade in the class but said she would have done poorly if she hadn’t been able to get help from Furmuly. The online discussion boards were useful, Rios said, but sometimes classmates couldn’t provide the answers she needed.

After finals, Rios said the instructor asked students if they’d be willing to take the class entirely online. Most said no.

“Maybe you could do all-online with a different subject, like history, where it’s something you can read and understand; but with math we definitely needed at least once a week with the instructor to come and help us,” said Rios, 26.

Lisa Hayden, 39, decided to return to school to complete the final 30 units necessary for a sociology degree. She took a math course through Omega Math, a for-profit online provider. The fully online course satisfies the remedial math requirement at her school, Cal State Chico.

“I was really scared because I’m not a math person,” she said, noting that she’d been out of school for years. “When I logged in, it was so simple and took away my math anxiety. You go at your own pace and it takes you step by step, with practice questions. It’s very user-friendly.”

None of her children who are attending Bay Area community colleges are taking online classes.

“They actually go to school,” she said.

This is one of a series of articles on the evolving world of online education. To view them online, go to: