Building courseware to close racial gaps in gateway classes

    The gaps remain stark: first-year students of color and learners from low-income backgrounds wash out of entry-level “gateway” courses at significantly higher rates than their white peers. Those early setbacks contribute significantly to the higher dropout rates that Black, Latino, Indigenous and Pell Grant–eligible students experience between their first and second year of college, and they ultimately are a factor in the persistently lower graduation rates for students from these groups.

    Individual colleges and universities, national groups and philanthropies, and a slew of companies have worked in recent years to address this seemingly intractable problem. But a new initiative, still in its early stages, aims to bring all those players (and more) together to build high-quality, low-cost courses in 20 general education subjects that enroll the most students nationally.

    The courses, the first of which are in Introduction to Statistics and general chemistry, will be specifically designed to increase the odds that students from all backgrounds and academic preparation levels have an equitable chance to succeed in those key courses—and ultimately in college. They will also be openly licensed, come with significant faculty training and support, and be rigorously evaluated by researchers to ensure that they are achieving the 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 total, Gates will spend as much as $65 million over four years on the work around these courses, with a significant chunk of it going to three major projects this year.

    Lumen Learning, which builds digital courseware using open educational resources, is leading the creation of the Introduction to Statistics course, in conjunction 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, that serve large numbers of minority students. Lumen will receive a $5 million grant.

    Arizona State and Carnegie Mellon Universities are spearheading the development of the chemistry course along with OpenStax, the Rice University spinoff that creates free and flexible textbooks, as well as other partners.

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

    “The generally accepted understanding is that despite a ton of effort, gateway courses are still leading to perniciously bad outcomes for many students from underrepresented backgrounds,” said Alison Pendergast, senior program officer for digital learning at Gates. “Our goal is to help the market see what exemplar courseware looks like that can lead to equitable outcomes for students.”

    Gates has been at this work for some time, having undertaken numerous initiatives over the last decade aimed at increasing the use of digital courseware in service of its overall goal of “improv[ing] student outcomes and ensur[ing] that race, ethnicity and income are not predictors of postsecondary success.”

    A few things appear to differentiate this effort from its past work.

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

    Secondly, Gates, which has been criticized in the past for sometimes embracing technological solutions and adopting a “we know best” attitude, is emphasizing that the courseware developed through this initiative (a) is designed for blended—not fully online—educational settings, (b) will be heavily influenced by research involving underrepresented students and their instructors, a first for the foundation, and (c) will be accompanied by significant investments in training and support for the “humans” (Pendergast’s word) who will make the courseware work: professors and instructional staff.

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

    A Closer Look

    The Lumen Learning–led project to develop an introductory statistics course is furthest along so far. Lumen was among the companies, publishers, nonprofit organizations and universities that responded to a request Gates submitted inviting proposals to build courseware specifically designed to address racial and socioeconomic equity gaps.

    Kim Thanos, founder and CEO of Lumen, said her company had submitted a proposal in part because the upheaval of the last two years had prompted her to ask whether she and the company “are doing enough on the issues of race and income.” She said, “Like a lot of people, we took time to pause and reflect. We feel proud of the work we’ve done, but have we done enough? Have I done enough? I didn’t feel like we had … We see this project as a way to begin to address that.”

    A news release from Lumen said that its task was to “create new courseware for Introduction to Statistics that can serve as an exemplar of courseware centered in equity that makes a meaningful difference in student success.”

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

    Thanos cited a few areas where publishers and designers of curricula and courses have frequently fallen short. First is the content, and its relevance to students’ “lived experience,” which can be crucial to whether students feel a sense of belonging in the classroom.

    “Are all the examples brought in white Western examples? Do we only show evidence of success in this discipline for white men?” Thanos said. There’s been a lot of work done on diversity, equity and inclusion around learning materials, but it’s often “a very superficial coat of paint.”

    Secondly, she said, “there is no such thing as courseware or technology that’s learning agnostic—technology has a perspective on things like how well-prepared users are, and a lot of technology fails to recognize that some students might be coming into the environment with less preparation or experience.”

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

    Faculty members often tell students to seek help via email, a mode of communication that typically demands a professional tone. “So you’re telling me that in this moment I’m struggling, I need to craft an all-important email,” Thanos said. “Why not help them with some email templates? One of the solutions we’re planning is a tool that would populate the draft of an email message for various things, like seeking help from a professor, to reduce my anxiety about reaching out.”

    Lumen also plans to use its Lumen Circles professional development tools for instructors—an outgrowth of its 2020 purchase of the assets of Faculty Guild—to provide faculty training in “practices that demonstrate caring, an element often left out of faculty support,” Thanos said.

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

    Gates isn’t in a rush, and its officials appear to have embraced the message that technology without instructor support and understanding the context isn’t enough.

    “We’re still bullish on the power of technology to help students,” said Pendergast. “But you need a lot more than that—user and efficacy research, faculty training and support on effective teaching practices, and better institutional supports—if you really want to improve outcomes.”

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