Hundreds of thousands of students worldwide are flocking to free online courses in topics like artificial intelligence and data analysis. But what about the student who’s struggling with basic algebra or English composition?
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants to find out whether the massive open online courses that have proved so popular in advanced and often highly technical fields offer the same promise for remedial and introductory courses.
On Tuesday the foundation is circulating to colleges and universities a request for proposals for MOOC’s that focus on the gateway courses that often trip up low-income and underprepared students. The foundation will award as many as 10 grants of up to $50,000 each for MOOC’s in “high-enrollment, low-success introductory-level courses.”
“We are cautiously optimistic that MOOC’s might be able to improve outcomes for low-income students who are working toward credentials, but there are a lot of questions that we can’t yet answer,” says Josh Jarrett, the foundation’s deputy director for postsecondary success.
The foundation wants to know, for instance, which students benefit most from MOOC’s and which kinds of courses translate best to that format. It is also hoping to learn how educators can support students who are enrolled in online courses but who aren’t naturally self-directed learners.
“It’s important to collectively ask and answer these questions,” Mr. Jarrett says, “before we barrel too far ahead.”
Lawrence S. Bacow, a former president of Tufts University who serves as president in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, welcomes the initiative.
“To date, most MOOC’s have been targeted at students in relatively advanced subjects,” he wrote in an e-mail. “A well developed MOOC that could be easily customized and adapted locally may be very attractive to many colleges and universities that are under great pressure to control rising instructional costs.”