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  1. Education

SPC uses online course to help remedial students

Published Apr. 19, 2013

Decades had passed since Cynthia Staiger sat in a high school classroom breathing in chalk dust and learning what "x" equaled if "y" was less than 5.

So when Staiger, 54, went to enroll for summer classes at St. Petersburg College, the Pinellas Park woman didn't do so hot on the math placement test.

She was not alone. More than half of first-time college students at SPC are placed in a remedial course and, more often than not, it's math.

Why not offer them a refresher?

St. Petersburg College believes it is the first community college in Florida to create a "massive open online course," or MOOC. Free to take and open to everyone in the state, the interactive course assesses students' abilities and aims to get them mathematically up to speed.

Called "Get Ready for College," the tutorial starts with integers and works up to graphing lines.

Because high school students also take the placement test to qualify for dual-enrollment, the college has included several Pinellas County School District students among the 30 people in the pilot program. High school seniors applying to SPC also are in the mix.

School officials know that when students test into remedial courses, there's a lower chance they'll go on to graduate.

"Part of it is psychological," says Jesse Coraggio, the college's associate vice president of institutional effectiveness, research and grants. "You graduate from high school, you pass the FCAT, you feel ready for college, you're excited, and then you take the placement test and it's discouraging."

Remedial courses can mean extra semesters before graduation, lengthening the college time line and making a degree costlier.

Students can retake the placement test, but they need to demonstrate that they've done something to improve their skills before the second sitting. Although the college has a few online tutorials, SPC officials say the MOOC's ability to target students' specific strengths and weaknesses will do a better job getting students ready for the retake.

Coraggio's daughter, a Seminole High freshman, is in the program with some classmates, as are older students and a few faculty members who wanted to give it a test run.

The whole project cost only $4,000 and involved just four people. The college is applying for grants to jazz it up a bit and create MOOCs for reading and writing, too.

MOOCs caught fire in higher education over the past couple of years, with some calling them a fad. But they've got a lot of fans, including Harvard University.

The University of Florida launched the state's first MOOCs, offering courses like "Economic Issues, Food & You." "Fundamentals of Human Nutrition," had enrolled more than 45,000 students by last month — a figure very close to UF's on-campus enrollment.

At SPC, Get Ready for College is different than a typical MOOC because it focuses on remediation.

Coraggio thinks the MOOC could enroll 10,000 students across the state. Though still in testing, the program is slated to go live on May 8.

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