July 12, 2007

How to reduce remediation costs

An article in Inside Higher Ed this morning on the Education Commission of the States meeting in Philadelphia focuses on two topics. One is unit records, of which I've written before, and there is no real surprise, which is that state leaders feel that they have their own unit records databases (which they do, for public institutions), though they have fewer concerns about the now-dead proposal for federal database than many others.

The second topic is remedial education, which has a long history, back to the 17th-century years of Harvard College when it was discovered that the boys/men who were enrolled weren't up to snuff. (For the life of me, this morning I can't remember and couldn't find the name of the book/report a few years ago providing a fairly salutary perspective on the realities of remedial education.) In the IHE article, Tennessee Associate Vice Chancellor Houston D. Davis talked about reducing the costs of remedial education by "modularizing" remedial courses to focus on specific deficits.

Okay,Folks in Charge of Remediation: If you're going to compartmentalize tiny bits of remedial education and probably put things online in depersonalized bits, you're going to ignore everything Mike Rose has written about inducting adults into an intellectual culture. But I suppose you have a right to do the best with the resources you have.

But in turn, I have the right to strip the veneer from what is essentially a defensive move ("if we can't provide term-long personal instruction, we'll chop remediation into bits and retain a budget"). That's so ... parochial. If we're going to have some part of remediation done online, let's do it properly: produced by a substantial grant, and free to all participants. Let the federal government fund a group of fabulous teachers and programmers to create online modules for learning arithmetic, algebra, and maybe a few parts of writing. Anyone in the world could go online to take advantage of it, as long as they agree to participate in an ongoing evaluation. Fund continuing development work at a slightly lower level. Then, anyone identified as needing additional skills in college or anyone wanting to brush up on skills can go online and get the best automatic, auto-didactic, self-driven, unsupervised, unguided learning available.

Then they'll still need to find a teacher.

The truth is that someone who is truly self-driven can find a lot of material online in various subjects, and college counselors can probably find some fabulous free online modules on subjects that are typically the focus of remedial courses. And they can point students to those resources. My guess is that some even do, but that's probably not in the routine of most.

How much remediation is a matter of addressing skills of individual students and how much is remediation a part of institutional routines that serve other purposes and needs? I'm not up on the sociological literature focusing on community colleges, but I suspect addressing skills is only a fraction of the role that remedial courses serve. (To the sociologists reading this: is cooling-out still a current term in the community-college literature?)

While probably well-intentioned, the proposal to "modularize" courses says a great deal about the structure of Tennessee's system. A student diverted into the modules will rightly see the difference between the fragmented structure of the modules and "real" college courses.  Modularization removes remedial programs even further from the regular program.

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Posted in Higher education on July 12, 2007 10:08 AM |