Moving Developmental Math Online: Lessons From College Students and Faculty in Tennessee

By Angela Boatman

A student studies online

Despite the uncertainty surrounding how long colleges will teach all of their courses online, it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to an increase in enrollment in technology-assisted developmental education courses. The use of technology in developmental courses, however, is not new. For over a decade, colleges have experimented with computer-based developmental math courses as a way to provide personalized, on-demand assistance to students. Tennessee’s public colleges were leaders in this effort, piloting and scaling computer-based instruction in developmental math courses from 2005 and 2013. Their experience provides lessons and cautions for others, most importantly that, although students reported feeling more engaged and empowered in computer-based courses, the changes did not necessarily lead to improved performance in subsequent courses.

Prior to the disruptions caused by COVID-19, these developmental math students took classes together in an on-campus computer lab and continued their work online at home. Courses were taught primarily through adaptive instructional software using online lessons, practice exercises, and quizzes and tests, rather than traditional faculty lectures. Whole-class instruction was eliminated and replaced with personalized computer-based instruction, with instructors offering support as needed. So, unlike exclusively online courses, while these new models relied primarily on technology to deliver course content, they also included an in-person component.

The use of learning technology in developmental courses can positively and negatively affect college students. On one hand, math content delivered using technology is consistent across sections and institutions, and students receive abundant opportunities for practice, often at their own pace. But not all students may be comfortable using learning technology as an instructional tool, particularly when they must drive the learning. The model assumes that students have the ability to stay on track throughout the semester in order to achieve course milestones.

In a recent CAPR study, I compared the outcomes of students in computer-based developmental math courses and traditional lecture-based versions of the same courses at two- and four-year public colleges in Tennessee. I learned several lessons applicable to today’s context:

  1. Students report primarily positive experiences with technology-driven developmental math courses.
    In focus groups, students said they perceived math content to be more accessible in the computer-based course than in the traditional lecture class. Students generally expressed that the computer-based course gave them a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning, offering them immediate feedback and flexibility with when and where they completed assignments. The computer lab format also made the faculty more accessible to students by opening up avenues to connect outside the traditional classroom and making it less intimidating to ask for help.
  2. Faculty report both benefits and drawbacks to technology-driven instruction.
    In interviews, many faculty members agreed that this method of instruction helped them more easily track student performance, provide more targeted assistance, and communicate directly with students. However, many expressed concerns about changes to pedagogy and their limited ability to shape curriculum. Faculty worried about whether students were truly developing skills or if the technology was allowing them to “game” the practice problems. Moreover, faculty expressed concerns that technology-based learning could perpetuate the same educational outcomes and inequities it was designed to alleviate. When faculty were involved in the design of computer-assisted developmental math courses, however, their satisfaction with the instructional model increased.
  3. The impacts of technology-driven instruction on credit attainment, degree completion, and passing a gateway college-level math course are largely null to negative.
    Using transcript data from the 2006 to the 2015 school year, I found that adopting computer-based instruction in developmental math courses resulted in lower pass rates in students’ first college-level math courses. These results are largely driven by students. It is not clear whether these results are related to a negative effect of the technology or to the fact that students who had become accustomed to technology-based instruction in their developmental course returned to a traditional format in the college-level course. On other measures of credit accumulation and degree completion, there were few statistically significant differences. Students with the lowest ACT math scores had similar course completion rates to those with higher ACT scores.

As colleges move their developmental courses online this summer and potentially the fall, it is important to remember that while students report feeling more engaged and empowered in computer-based courses, these changes do not necessarily lead to improved course performance—at least not in isolation. It is possible that aligning the instructional approach of the developmental and college-level courses in our new online reality will naturally lead to improved student outcomes. Alternatively, the faculty and peer support students report as benefits in the computer lab setting may not translate to fully online instruction. Only through continuing to evaluate students’ grades and asking students to evaluate their experiences in their courses will colleges construct a full picture of how online learning is affecting students in developmental courses.

With this sudden forced move to online instruction, Administrators must carefully consider the ways in which students are succeeding or not in technology-driven educational environments. Faculty should be central to the planning and implementation of online developmental courses. If course instructors express concern about students’ subsequent academic outcomes, colleges should pay attention. Computer-driven instruction in developmental courses may be the new reality for some time to come, but the ability of faculty to identify and address limitations of the technology will be essential to sustained student success.

Angela Boatman is an associate professor of higher education at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College.