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Adding Up The Distance

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Critical Success Factors for Internet-Based Learning in Developmental Mathematics

Could the Internet be part of the solution to the high dropout rate among community college students in developmental mathematics?  That is what TRO Learning, developers of the popular PLATO computer-based developmental education courseware, and the League for Innovation in the Community College explored through a joint research project called Adding up the Distance. In the fall of 1999, eight community colleges implemented an Internet-based mathematics curriculum, developed by PLATO, as part of their developmental studies programs. The programs used a variety of structures, ranging from "pure" distance education to various mixtures of classroom and computer-based work on campus. This study characterizes the components of each program and examines the results of student outcomes and faculty reactions. 

The purpose of the study was to explore "critical success factors for computer-based distance learning in developmental math programs" during the course of two academic semesters. College participants, League research team members, and PLATO service teams outlined four areas of investigation: 

Development of effective, individualized, open entry/open exit
programs for developmental students via distance education;
Exploration of successful developmental student profiles using distance
learning technology;
Cultivation of learners' motivation through the use of technology in
developmental studies programs using distance education; and
Effective combinations of campus-based support service and distance
learning delivery systems as models of success for developmental 
learners.

The research design included quantitative and qualitative analysis, and five primary data sets were collected from 185 students and 20 faculty participants, at eight different institutions. League Board and Alliance participants included:

Central Florida Community College, FL
Delta College, MI
Kapiolani Community College, HI
Kirkwood Community College
Moraine Valley Community College, IL
Miami-Dade Community College, FL
Santa Fe Community College, FL
Sinclair Community College, OH

Project Outcomes and Formative Conclusions

Students offered feedback through demographic profiles and surveys. Indicators of progress and success were also documented through final grades. Of the 185 (n=) learners participating in the study, 116 or 62% persisted and successfully completed their developmental courses. 

As an action-based research project, Adding Up the Distance began by exploring college administrative processes, instructors, and students as independent variables of distance learning developmental math programs. From this study, researchers can conclude that the relationship between college resources, instructors, and learners in successful distance learning models is interdependent. Colleges that were most successful using POI with students created systemic balance in their distance learning developmental math programs. They added definition and purpose to the thought and conjecture surrounding "critical success factors for computer-based distance learning developmental math programs." In the following summary, these factors are framed within the four pre-defined areas of investigation and combined with documented analysis of research results.

Development of effective, individualized, open entry/open exit programs for developmental students via distance education

Beyond the traditional functions of student services and development of course objectives, distance learning services and curriculum should be enhanced to include a more comprehensive plan with the following four variables: 

1. Easy Access to Internet and Easy Navigational Courseware. 
Courseware that makes logon/logout functions and transition from lesson to lesson as smooth as possible was cited as a benefit to successful students. 

2. Technical Support. Repeatedly, students and faculty asserted technical support as the factor most important to program success.

3. Alignment of Online Courseware and Course Objectives. Programs that correlated course objectives with POI lessons in a meaningful way and connected assignments and class activities had more successful outcomes. 

4. Individualized Instructional Format. Students and faculty noted the self-paced, individualized, anytime/anyplace functions of distance learning as the best features of the project.

Exploration of successful developmental student profiles using distance learning technology

5. Student Recruitment and Counseling. Proactive selection, preparation, and counseling with students entering distance learning programs were noted as key variables for successful course completion. 

6. Orientation. Students who attended mandatory group orientations cited fewer technical problems and greater ease of navigation. These students also had more successful program outcomes.

Cultivation of learners' motivation through the use of technology in developmental studies programs using distance education

7. Student Connections. Interactive and frequent contact was concluded as an important condition for success. The more successful POI programs in this study had structured assignment schedules and student contact requirements (via Web page, e-mail, or phone calls) as part of the calendar of course activities. 

Effective combinations of campus-based support service and distance learning delivery systems as models of success for developmental learners

8. Faculty Development. As noted, faculty participants had varying levels of experience with technology and computer-based applications. Those colleges that offered more than five professional development opportunities correlated with faculty who were active in attending workshops and conferences created the more successful programs in this project. 

9. High Standards of Quality and Content Development. As might be expected, faculty who had experience with distance learning had successful program outcomes; however, faculty who were using distance learning as a developmental math option for the first time also experienced success. From the research gathered, it is concluded that those faculty members who were first-time users of distance learning showed great interest in computer-based applications, self-initiated the learning curve associated with teaching with technology, and took advantage of the interactive and mastery-based format of POI courseware. They closely reviewed POI content and were actively involved in new curriculum development and content upgrade for their courses. They were also very active in seeking technical support and assistance from the PLATO helpdesk and their assigned PLATO educational consultant. 

10. College Leadership and Program Support. Participating colleges that designated priority, support, and commitment of resources for technical investments to this project clearly saw successful responses from both faculty and students. Although transparent in some instances, administrative support was recognized in this analysis as clearing the way for successful implementation, program development, and student access leading to high quality services and learning opportunities for students.

For more specific details on this study, contact Edward Leach, Vice President, Services Division, League for Innovation, or TRO Learning.