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Developmental Math + MOOC = College Ready: Q&A With UW-La Crosse MathMOOC

The math faculty at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is nearing completion of a Massive Open Online Course that bucks a lot of assumptions about online learning. While critics of MOOCs have concluded already that the model only works for experienced college students who don’t need a lot of support, La Crosse is quietly achieving results with a MOOC targeting students who are at risk of flaming out of college.

Funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, College Readiness MathMOOC is an open version of the summertime FastTrack program for incoming freshmen whose placement tests put them on track for developmental math classes. These extra classes mean many new college students are in the hole before their college careers even get started. Nationally, only about 45% of students placed in remedial math courses ever complete them, meaning that a significant percentage of students never come close to graduating.

However 37 out of 38 students in the online FastTrack program last summer were able to retake the placement exam at the end of the summer and place into college algebra or higher. La Crosse may be demonstrating the potential for online education to increase the number of students who can enter and finish college with lower costs.

This spring, students from several entire high school classes in neighboring Wisconsin communities, along with students from over 40 countries, are going through the same material in MOOC form, using the Desire2Learn platform.

I say La Crosse is doing this quietly, but it’s not without attention. Thanks in part to the popularity of an adorable and informative video, but also because of  persuasive outcomes, the leadership team there has been in high demand at conferences and in webinars in the last several months.

So I feel fortunate we were able to get some of their time to talk – so much time, in fact, that we’re going to present this Q&A in two parts. Today, we’ll hear about what makes the La Crosse developmental math MOOC unique and how they put it together. In part two, we’ll focus more on translating their experience into practical advice for students.

I talked with three members of the UW-La Crosse leadership team: Professor Bob Hoar, Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Professor of Mathematics; Professor Jennifer Kosiak, School of Education, and STEP Program Coordinator, Mathematics Department; and Maggie Lee McHugh, Murphy Learning Center Director, Associate Lecturer of Mathematics.



Let’s start by talking about how the MathMOOC came about.


Our FastTrack program plays into the history of this. As an instructor I recognized we had two populations – students for whom math is still a big struggle and need way more time and students who maybe had been away from math their senior year or just forgotten those basic algebra concepts and just needed a quick refresher.

So over many years we developed digital learning projects which provide a problem and answer and a “chalk talk,” which is a podcast explaining this material. Last  year, we received a grant to pilot a six-week online course. This was prior to the start the school year and it was pretty similar to our MOOC learning modules online.

Then one week before the school started these students moved to campus and we had a mini first-year-experience where they were meeting with services on campus, meeting with faculty. At the end of the week they retook our placement exam. After six weeks online and a couple of days face-to-face, 37 of our 38 students passed out of development mathematics and into college algebra, and actually some were placed in pre-calculus.

MOOC data from University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

July 16 – 38 students placed in developmental math

MOOC data from University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

August 26 – 37 students placed in algebra or higher


That’s an amazing success. We’re taking one whole class of developmental mathematics and now allowing these students to place into college algebra, in essence taking one whole semester of mathematics off since they did it over the summer.

When we started the MOOC, we were looking to target students who will be taking the placement exams for their various institutions. But quickly we found out there were a lot of reasons people took it beyond what we thought of.

First we had students whose goal was to return to college and they were worried math would be a barrier. Beyond that, we had parents who wanted to help their students, parents of homeschool students who wanted more assistance, all the way up to the bus driver who wanted to to talk to the students about math and the grandpa who wanted to just rev up his mind.

What was interesting for us is the goal really became larger than what we originally focused on. That’s one of the powers of a MOOC. People enter it with a lot of different interests.


A teacher often has a trajectory in mind that students will follow — through this lesson and that material to these objectives. With MOOCs, what you’re pointing out is that people have very different agendas and they’re not following the expected trajectory. I wonder if that makes you change your mind about how the course ought to function. Do you think about setting up the course in a different way because you’ve got people on all these different trajectories?


The traditional measure of success in a course is if somebody passed. But as people are interested in the course for lots of different reasons, going all the way through the material might not be what they need to personally succeed in their own goals. So we’ve given up on the traditional failure rate as a measure of success.


We have to look at it from all multiple angles. Students in high school or college may have that traditional experience of mathematics where it’s skill and drill. But we realized people were going to have different interests and that we needed to show the real-world mathematics at that level of application.


We developed a video introduction that said, “Here’s what you’re going to be learning, but here’s why it’s relevant in a real world setting.” We looked at our participant list to see what those needs were and why they might be taking mathematics courses.

I think in terms of the content, we looked at college and career readiness. We really needed to look at what were the skills and knowledge and understanding students would need if they were going to enter into a college-credit-bearing mathematics course.


Why did you decide to do this in MOOC form? Why open it to the world at all?


Well Bob came up with a brilliant idea.  [laughter]


Near the end of our FastTrack pilot, when we were starting to see these successes, Bob heard about the Gates Foundation grant, and we didn’t really know a lot about MOOCs. We were just starting to hear the buzz. But it sounded like our summer program taken to a massive scale. We saw the success on a small scale and we wanted to serve more students.

The Gates proposal came out in September, and it was due October 1. It was October 30 that we actually learned we got the grant. Having that FastTrack program, we could say, “Here’s the success that we’ve already had in this and we’re building off of it.” We could not have developed and implemented a MOOC in the timeframe they were looking at if we didn’t already have most of it.


A lot of the commentary right now says MOOCs are good for highly motivated students who don’t need a lot of support or who are already very experienced with college. It seems this example challenges that assumption.


We saw that students are motivated by different needs. Students want to be prepared to go into college mathematics. Also, as a math educator, I saw the need  high schools have to look at supplemental ways to support student understanding in order to prepare them for college.


Was there anything about how students navigated through the material or the strategies they used that surprised you?


Once we saw some of the people coming in, from kids up to 85 years old, people who had been away awhile from math awhile, we decided to open up the course in advance by a week just so people could understand the technology itself. We had a series of videos that would say everything from, “Here’s how to actually log in and navigate the system,” to “Here’s how you work through a learning object,” to  “Here’s a practice quiz.” But students didn’t have too many issues with the technology.

One thing we did is that students had to pass a quiz at the end of each module. They had to get 50% on the quiz, and they had an unlimited number of attempts to get 50%, before moving on to module two. We did not open all nine modules so students could poke through at their own pace.

You needed to understand the first module in order to move on to the next. I think some people were turned off by that. They just wanted to see everything.

Part of that is because mathematics lessons build off of each other. You needed to understand the first module in order to move on to the next. I think some people were turned off by that. They just wanted to see everything.

But we needed to look at, “Does this model show gain?” And the way we show gain is that they are mastering the concept each time. We designed the experience with a certain intent. It wasn’t just, “Here’s all of the curriculum. Feel free to figure out what you want and where you need to go.”


If a student needs a lot of support does the MOOC environment work well for them?

. . . .

Read on to part two of this Q&A when we’get the UW-La Crosse math faculty’s response to that question and get their advice for students signing up MOOCs this summer.



Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.


  1. Would love to see how they embrace social and peer-to-peer learning. Most online courses and MOOCs really just rely on a text-based forum to accommodate that need but it is not enough. We created StudyRoom with the goal of maximizing the online learning experience for the students by embracing social learning and collaboration.

    • Greetings Emerson~

      Within the D2L platform, we had discussion forums where participants could interact. These forums ranged from mathematical topics to college interests and life goals. Peer-to-peer interaction also occurred within the tutoring sessions or live lectures, which were hosted through D2L using Blackboard Collaborate. Great question!

  2. Interesting question. That’s one thing I didn’t think to ask them about. They did talk about how they used tutors — including older peers who were math education majors — for interaction. I have a hunch that whatever they did do for peer interaction is in the DNA of the Desire2Learn platform, which I forgot to mention was the platform they used. Perhaps they’ll have a chance to stop by her and answer that question.