A New Paradigm for Remediation: MOOCs in Secondary Schools

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Key Takeaways

  • Swelling the ranks of college attendees can only occur if less-well-prepared students join the college-going cohort; in effect, higher education has become responsible for K–12 remediation.
  • While providing alternative approaches to general education courses is laudable and useful, using MOOCs as remediation alternatives at the college level appears to treat the symptoms rather than the disease.
  • With remedial MOOCs offered starting in high school, students would enter college fully prepared for college-level work in math and English, which is a predictor of college success in general.

American K–12 education is blamed for failing to produce college-ready graduates. True, more poorly prepared students are attempting to succeed in postsecondary education, but that is the result of society's expectation that more students attend college. Swelling the ranks of college attendees can only occur if less-well-prepared students join the college-going cohort. In effect, higher education has become responsible for K–12 remediation. Rather than put the expanding burden on colleges (mostly hard-pressed community colleges, at that), I propose moving remediation earlier, into high schools, using MOOCs (massive open online courses) as the solution.


Postsecondary institutions have invested in producing remedial coursework, especially in mathematics and English, which taxes their budgets and generally fails to remediate many students to the point of graduation. Lately, especially in public higher education, elected officials have attempted to push all remedial education to community colleges, believing them to be a less expensive alternative. The result has been even less graduation success.

Recently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued a request for proposals to develop "remedial and other general education" MOOCs that would "provide institutions [colleges and universities] a way to blend MOOC content into more formal courses with more intensive faculty, advising, and peer support and also provide students an alternative and direct path to credit and credentials."

While providing alternative approaches to general education courses is laudable and useful, using MOOCs as remediation alternatives at the college level appears to treat the symptoms rather than the disease. By the time these students get to college, they have already been branded, and few institutions can bring their performance in math and English to a level necessary for completion of college work. For the small percentage of students where remediation has succeeded, it required an incredible investment of energy and resources to achieve their goals.

A New Approach: Start Remediation Earlier

Perhaps it's time for a change in approach, a paradigm shift toward a system that could potentially be more successful, more efficient, more frugal — and even a lighter burden on K–12 education.

Proposed: Apply the MOOC approach earlier in the educational process, at the high school level, engaging secondary schools and doing more than simply preparing students for college-level work.

Imagine developing MOOCs in math and English, the most commonly remediated subjects, that begin at some basic level and, on completion, produce a student who could function at the same level as a student who had completed the first semester or year of college-level English and math. In each state, the courses could be administered by a single public university on behalf of state government in collaboration with K–12 partners. Then, imagine making these MOOCs available, free of charge and continuously, to any student in the ninth grade or above who wanted to work through them. On completion of a MOOC, the student could pay a small administrative fee and receive college credits. And finally, imagine allowing only those students who successfully completed the MOOCs to enter public four-year colleges. Students who did not complete the MOOCs could either attend community colleges, from which they could transfer to four-year institutions, or continue in the MOOCs until completion and then enter public four-year institutions — or attend a private college and pay more for an education. This approach would place responsibility for K–12 education in the K–12 system rather than focusing on remediation at the postsecondary level.

The Details: Questions to Answer

The approach seems simple enough, but working out the details will require some careful thinking and planning. Several questions must be asked and answered: "Who will pay for initial curriculum development?" "How will course quality be verified?" "How will testing and certification be validated?" "How can cheating be minimized?" "How can we expect success when those most in need are the toughest students to reach?" Finally, and most important, "How can we change the educational culture to accommodate this new paradigm?"

Who Pays?

The Gates Foundation has offered an excellent initial funding possibility. The ideal situation would be for the Gates Foundation or another private source of educational funding to provide seed money to public higher education institutions in several states on the condition that each state provide the remainder of the funding and that collaboration with high school teachers and curriculum developers occur. In this way, the expertise resident in all of those institutions could collaboratively produce the courseware, and the resultant parallel development could ultimately result in a "best of breed" competition. The best model could be promulgated free of charge to those states that participated; states that did not participate could pay a licensing fee to adopt the model, creating a pool of funds from which to reimburse participating universities and states. The collaboration of K–12 and university personnel would ensure the appropriateness of educational materials and pedagogy and the granting of college credit, creating a nationally normed system.

What about Course Quality?

Whatever the structure eventually adopted, it would be well worth the investment of state resources, producing savings at both the high school and college levels and significantly improving the academic preparation of college-bound students. The question of course quality would be addressed through continuing parallel development by high school and higher education experts, and continuous improvement could be funded through licensing fees. Assurance of quality could occur via external assessment. The administration of the ongoing system could be funded from the savings realized at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels after the initiative reached critical mass.

Testing and Certification, Sure — but Minimizing Cheating?

Validation of testing methodology and certification of completion is no different than for any online coursework. Since many online offerings exist, discovering the best practices in this area shouldn't be that difficult.

Minimizing cheating and monitoring progress are related to validation and testing. If the MOOCs are available from the beginning of high school, the MOOC organization and the school systems could collaboratively and continuously monitor students' progress. Best of all, cheating just doesn't matter — the lack of knowledge becomes obvious during testing. Further, the common criticism of MOOCs that the work is completely unsupervised and therefore uncertifiable would be mitigated by the collaboration between the MOOC administrators and schools. Because it has become fairly common practice to grant college credit for Advanced Placement courses and "dual credit" courses, the monitoring of MOOC students primarily by high school teachers is easily justified.

What Leads to Success?

The possibility of success using this MOOC-oriented system improves in several ways over standard remediation after high school.

  • First, the support in math and English begins in ninth grade, not four years later when students begin their postsecondary education.
  • Second, two separate systems, MOOC and high school, support development of adequate skill in both disciplines. Moreover, integration of the two systems can support the weaknesses, strengths, and preferred learning styles of individual students. The common criticism of MOOCs (or any online course) that student success requires intense commitment and concentration — traits presumably not present in today's high school and college students — is significantly mitigated by the support from high school personnel and curricula.
  • Third, a specific goal, passing the English and math MOOCs, concretizes expectations and helps weaker students visualize their goals.
  • Finally, the academic credits earned for passing a nationally normed and recognized course can be standardized at most institutions of higher education. This last point yields a partial solution to the national debate about the common core. In math and English, a common core is possible.

How Can We Change Educational Culture?

Structuring the educational system to support this approach might be difficult, but it's certainly not impossible. After all, our current approach to entrance into higher education is based on the ACT and SAT systems. Before those exams existed, entrance into college was based on performance in previous schools and, in some cases, individual college entrance exams. The structure of the earlier system changed based on strength of belief in the SAT/ACT exams — which were developed by private industry, by the way, not government agencies. Acceptance of those exams came slowly, with selective institutions leading the way. In the case of using MOOCs to determine college entrance, the first step is obtaining agreement from public institutions of higher education that entrance will be denied unless students complete the MOOCs successfully, or show their capabilities by some other means. In addition, community colleges must be willing to use the MOOCs in the same manner that they are used in high school to ensure competence in college-level math and English.

Benefits of Remedial MOOCs in High School

If this approach were adopted, students would enter college fully prepared for college-level work in math and English, which is a predictor of college success in general. They would have fewer college credits for which to pay normal fees, lessening the cost of their education. Colleges would no longer be required to offer and budget for massive numbers of remedial — as well as introductory — English and math sections. And American society could stop blaming American public K–12 education and higher education for failure to achieve the unrealistic goal of improving the performance of all students while continuously adding less-well-prepared students to each college-going cohort.

This MOOC approach represents a major paradigm shift in the transition from high school to college — but it's a change from which everyone gains. It (re-)places the responsibility for each level of education where it belongs, and it does so collaboratively. I believe it's worth a try.


An earlier version of this essay was published in the Journal Gazette, "Online solution to the education crisis: Offer remedial English, math classes through Internet" (Oct. 8, 2012).