Building courseware to close racial gaps in gateway classes

The gaps remain wide: Colored freshmen and learners from low-income backgrounds are being washed out of entry-level courses at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. These early setbacks contribute significantly to the higher dropout rates that Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and Pell Grant-eligible students experience between their freshman and sophomore years, and are ultimately a factor in the persistently lower graduation rates for students from these groups.

Individually colleges and universitiesNational groups and philanthropies, and a whole host of companies have been working to tackle this seemingly unsolvable problem in recent years. But a new initiative, still in its infancy, aims to bring all these stakeholders (and more) together to build high-quality, low-cost courses in 20 general education subjects that are the largest enrollment nationwide.

The courses, the first of which is in Introductory Statistics and General Chemistry, will be specifically designed to increase the chances that students of all backgrounds and academic preparation levels have an equal opportunity to succeed in these key courses – and ultimately at college. They are also openly licensed, provided with extensive faculty training and support, and are rigorously evaluated by researchers to ensure they are achieving desired goals.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the driving force behind the new initiative, providing millions of dollars to the two coalitions of about two dozen organizations involved in designing, building, testing and evaluating the new courses. In all, Gates will spend up to $65 million over four years working around these courses, with a significant portion of that going to three major projects this year.

Lumen Learning, which creates digital courseware using open educational resources, is guide creation the introductory statistics course in partnership with organizations such as Digital Promise and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and institutions such as Howard University, Rockland and Tallahassee Community Colleges and Santa Ana College, which serve large numbers of minority students . Lumen receives a US$5 million grant.

Arizona State and Carnegie Mellon Universities are leading the development of the chemistry course along with OpenStax, the Rice University spin-off that creates free and flexible textbooks, and other partners.

And MacMillan Learning, a publishing company-turned-technology company, will conduct research on the introductory sociology and psychology courses it offers through its digital platform, Achieve, to assess whether they can provide sufficiently equitable outcomes for racially and socioeconomically underrepresented students.

“The commonly accepted understanding is that despite many efforts, Gateway courses still result in fatally poor outcomes for many students from underrepresented backgrounds,” said Alison Pendergast, senior program officer for digital learning at Gates. “Our goal is to show the market what exemplary courseware looks like that can lead to equitable outcomes for students.”

Gates has been involved in this work for some time, and over the past decade has undertaken numerous initiatives aimed at expanding the use of digital courseware in service of his overall goal of Improv[ing] Student outcomes and ensure[ing] that race, ethnicity, and income are not predictors of post-secondary success.”

A few things seem to set this effort apart from her previous work.

First, the Foundation has clearly been influenced by the societal circumstances of the past two years, in which the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities by disproportionately deterring the educational plans of learners from minority groups and low-income backgrounds, and the Black Lives Matter movement has racial injustices highlighted in many areas.

Second, Gates, which has been criticized in the past for sometimes embracing technological solutions and taking a “we know best” attitude, emphasizes that the courseware developed under this initiative is (a) designed for blended – not entirely online – educational environments designed, (b) is heavily influenced by research involving underrepresented students and their faculty, a first for the Foundation, and (c) is accompanied by significant investment in the training and support of “the people” (Pendergast’s word ) who will produce the courseware Work: professors and teaching staff.

“In the past, we’ve typically focused on technology in his quest for better courseware,” Pendergast said, acknowledging a bias that has rubbed critics of Gates the wrong way. “But we know that courseware is being implemented by faculty and that they need more support and better professional development tools and good data to drive improved classroom practice.”

A closer look

The most advanced project to date is the Lumen Learning-led project to develop courseware for introductory statistics courses, which will cost no more than $40 per student. Lumen was among the companies, publishers, nonprofits, and universities that responded to a request from Gates, submitting inviting proposals to create courseware specifically designed to fill racial and socioeconomic justice gaps.

Kim Thanos, Lumen’s founder and CEO, said her company submitted a proposal in part because the upheaval of the past two years has prompted her to question whether she and the company are “doing enough about race and income.” She said: “Like many people, we have taken time to stop and reflect. We’re proud of the work we’ve done, but have we done enough? have i done enough I didn’t feel like we… We see this project as a way to get started.”

According to a Lumen press release, his mission is to “create new courseware for introductory statistics that can serve as an example of courseware that focuses on equity and makes a meaningful difference in student success.”

What might be the courseware elements for a statistics course that would make it more relevant or less daunting to a black or low-income student? Isn’t statistics color (and income) blind?

Thanos identified a few areas where curriculum and course editors and designers have often fallen short. The first is the content and its relevance to the students’ ‘lived experience’, which can be crucial to whether students feel they belong in the classroom.

“Are all examples brought in white western examples? Are we only showing success in this discipline for white males?” said Thanos. A lot of work has been done on diversity, equity and inclusion around learning materials, but it is often “a very perfunctory paint job”.

Second, she said, “There is no such thing as courseware or technology that learns agnostically — technology has a perspective on how well-prepared users are, and a lot of technology doesn’t realize that some students might come into the environment with less preparation or experience.”

For example, Lumen’s recent work in testing its existing courseware in learning centers at colleges like Rockland, which serve many minority students, revealed that “if I’m a minority student, I may be very reluctant to acknowledge that I need help because I already feel like I don’t belong,” said Thanos.

Faculty members often prompt students to ask for help via email, a mode of communication that usually requires a professional tone. “So you’re telling me that at this moment that I’m fighting, I have an extremely important email to compose,” Thanos said. “Why don’t you help them with some email templates? One of the solutions we are planning is a tool that fills in the draft of an email message for various things such as: B. to seek help from a professor to reduce my fear of outreach.”

Lumen also plans to use his lumen circles professional development tools for trainers – a result of his 2020 purchase of the Faculty Guild’s assets – to provide faculty training in “practices that demonstrate caring, an element often omitted in faculty support,” Thanos said.

Versions of the courses from Lumen and the Arizona State-Carnegie Mellon collaboration are scheduled to be available for pilot testing at institutions with a significant population of students of color in 2023, with extensive user and efficacy testing to follow.

Gates is in no hurry, and his officials seem to have taken the message that technology isn’t enough without the instructor’s support and an understanding of the context.

“We’re still optimistic about the power of technology to help students,” Pendergast said. “But you need much more than that — user and effectiveness research, teacher training and support for effective teaching practices, and better institutional support — if you really want to improve outcomes.”

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