Adding Up the Distance: Can Developmental Studies Work in a Distance Learning Environment?


Most reports of distance education applications focus on academically accomplished learners. But for community colleges and adult learning programs, the more common learner is in need of developmental studies. Developmental learners are not new to academic institutions, and the profile of the developmental learner extends beyond income, race and gender lines. Despite great need and high demand for service, there is little research on how to reach these learners successfully through dis-tance education.

In spring 1999, the League for Innovation in the Community College, PLATO Learning Inc. and eight community colleges initiated an action research project titled "Adding Up the Distance: Critical Success Factors for Internet-Based Learning in Developmental Mathe-matics." The project explored the questions and challenges of implementing successful distance learning in developmental math programs for community colleges across the country. We reasoned that since developmental studies learners, by definition, have not succeeded in conventional campus classroom activities, it might be possible to develop new distance education formats that successfully meet these learners' needs.

Project Goals

Our research consortium included eight participating colleges that committed to full implementation of PLATO Web Learning Network courseware as part of their developmental mathematics program. An earlier version called PLATO on the Internet was also available for the study. Participating colleges designated two faculty members and made significant commitments to training and service time toward project goals. A pilot was conducted in the summer, followed by a full study during the fall semester. Our goal was to explore critical success factors for computer-based distance learning in developmental math programs. We outlined four areas of investigation:

1. Development of effective, individualized and open entry/open exit ('E/'E) programs for developmental learners via distance education.
2. Cultivation of learners' motivations through the use of technology in developmental studies programs using distance education.
3. Exploration of successful developmental learner profiles using distance learning technology.
4. Effective combinations of campus-based support service and distance learning delivery systems as models of success for developmental learners.

The project's goals com-bined grades, college pro-files, and learner and faculty feedback as factors of study. Therefore, the research de-sign included quantitative and qualitative analyses. As an Internet-based project, data collection forms and materials were made available through the League's Web site. During the project, learners and faculty completed survey documents online, and their responses were captured to a database. A listserv was also established as a primary communication tool among participants and researchers. Six primary data sets, which are summarized below, were collected for analysis:

1. College Profile, Survey and Narrative
2. Instructor Survey
3. Learner Profile
4. Learner Survey
5. Learning Community Survey
6. Course Completion Outcomes

College Participants

Participating colleges offered a range of history and experience with technology in their developmental studies programs. Some colleges have been actively involved with computer-based applications for more than 20 years, while others noted this project as their first attempt in using technology tools with developmental learners. The completed college profiles document an average of eight years of experience with computer-based learning, with a median value of five years of experience.

We encouraged experimentation with a wide variety of models, and no two college-implementation or service-delivery formats were the same. Based on organizational culture and learner needs, each college implemented PLATO in its developmental math studies in a different way. Six colleges used PLATO as a complete online/Inter-net solution for developmental math courses, ranging from basic numeric operations to the highest levels of pre-algebra, with textbooks or selected handouts as supplemental material. Two colleges used PLATO in a supplemental role.

Colleges Involved in the Project*

  • Central Florida Community College, Ocala, Fla.
  • Delta College, University Center, Mich.
  • Kapiolani Community College, Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Kirkwood Community College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
  • Moraine Valley Community College, Palos Hills, Ill.
  • Miami-Dade Community College, Miami, Fla.
  • Santa Fe Community College, Gainesville, Fla.
  • Sinclair Community College, Dayton, Ohio

* Eastfield College, Dallas, Texas, initially planned on being a member of the consortium, but college and departmental obstacles prevented full implementation and participation.

Unlike most distance education technologies, with PLATO, learners experienced computer-adaptive integrated learning processes that included assessment, prescriptive placement, highly interactive in-struction with diagnostic feedback, and evaluative testing. Both "pure" distance and "mixed" asynchronous models were used. All programs included an on-campus orientation, with some adding periodic class meetings throughout the semester. All courses used e-mail and telephone consultation; some used threaded chat and class Web sites as well. Learner support services, related to distance learning and developmental studies, were a critical issue to all participants, as well as technical assistance and support for computer-based applications. Distance learning delivery and lab-based hardware/ software services were offered through central district functions or college/campus contacts.

Instructor Participants

For the study, two faculty participants were selected as project leaders on each campus. Training sessions were compacted into a two-day, off-site session with follow-up consulting services to assist with implementation processes. With the exception of one college, Central Florida Community College, project leaders at each campus were full-time math faculty members. Faculty experiences with instructional technology ranged from computer-based learning novices to distance learning experts, with an average of nine years of experience teaching with computer applications. We surveyed faculty at the end of the semester about their experiences with PLATO and with distance education. Faculty pointed to six best outcomes of online distance delivery with developmental education learners:

1. Tutorial functions. Learners are able to use the system for study of basic math concepts and review/ remediation functions, allowing more time for individual faculty/ learner contact and discussion.
2. Flexibility. Adult learners, who have significant professional and personal time constraints, have the option of working anytime, anywhere.
3. Self-paced. Learners are not stalled by predetermined course schedules; they may complete assignments in as little or as much time as necessary.
4. Privacy. Learners can operate in a private environment, interact in a computer-adaptive environment, and efficiently focus on concepts and areas they need.
5. Cutting edge. Developmental education learners, traditionally offered second-rate services, were being offered an attractive state-of-the-art option.
6. Interactive feedback. Through a computer-adaptive environment, learners receive immediate constructive feedback after each response rather than having to wait for lesson or test results to monitor progress.

Learner Participants

We felt that differences among the online learner participants from their on-campus counterparts in developmental math programs could help develop a profile of the successful distance education developmental learner. This question led us to collect learner profiles at the beginning of the course semester to capture the demographics, characteristics and backgrounds of the 185 learner participants.

Developmental education learn-ers enter community colleges with rich cultural histories and experiences, reflecting America's emerging society of diversity. In Table 1 (Page 22), these variables are compared to developmental education learners nationally as an indicator of representativeness of the learners in the study. Although statistical comparisons to national or campus profiles are inappropriate given the constraints of the study, the differences from national averages in this learner may suggest that the profile of the distance education learner differs from that of the on-campus population. If this is the case, then further study may show that distance education developmental studies learners are older, more often female and more often high school graduates than the national norm. We suspect the differences in ethnicity observed may reflect access to a computer, rather than any cultural bias for or against distance education.

Motivational factors are also important in developmental studies, so we studied motivation through surveys as part of data collection. Learners' expectations and measures of satisfaction were evaluated by a formal questionnaire at the end of the semester with open-ended response topics. Responses are noted below:

Comfort level. Participating learners claimed high levels of experience and comfort levels, with minimal levels of anxiety while using computers, the Internet and technology resources. We found that frequent faculty contact through Web pages and/or e-mail was positively correlated to a learner's comfort level with distance learning.

Orientation and support ser-vices. Those who attended mandatory formal orientation more positively noted that questions and issues were answered, and expressed greater ease of initial logon than those who had no formal orientation or a one-to-one orientation session.

Alignment of course objectives and online lesson assignments. Learners shared more positive comments related to comprehension, time-on-task and motivation when they recognized direct correlation of their online assignments with course objectives and exams.

Project Outcomes

As an indicator of progress and success, final grades from the fall 1999 semester were collected from all participating colleges. For those programs offering an 'E/'E format, in-progress measures were tabulated and assigned. Table 2 (Page 24) outlines the total sample of participants and project outcomes.


Our most general conclusion is that the colleges which fully integrated online curriculum with existing course objectives in their developmental math programs were the most successful with learners. We have clustered the factors that appeared to be most critical to the success of the program under the four project goals and areas of investigation, with six emergent factors for success. Of course, given the action research model employed in the study, the following four conclusions must be regarded as formative.

Conclusion 1: Development of effective, individualized 'E/'E programs for developmental learners via distance education. Faculty should enhance distance education services and curriculum to include a more comprehensive plan with the following variables:

Easy access to the Internet and easy navigational courseware. Although the majority of learners who enrolled in the distance learning courses expressed high levels of comfort and expertise with computer-based applications, suc-cessful learners cited the beneficial courseware that made logon/logoff functions and transitions between the lessons as smooth as possible.

Technical support. Again and again, technical support via college help desk or program contact was the most important factor cited by both learners and faculty in making the program successful.

Alignment of online courseware and course objectives. Pro-grams that correlated course objectives with online lessons in a meaningful way, whether as supplemental or primary content, and connected assignments and class activities were more successful than programs that used online content as drill-and-practice exercises.

Individualized instructional format. Faculty who used computer-adaptive components and offered individualized, targeted assignments received higher ratings from learners and more favorable comments on learner surveys. The self-paced, individualized, anytime/ anywhere functions of distance learning were noted as the "best" features of the project by learners and faculty.

Conclusion 2: Development of successful learner profiles using distance learning technology.

Learner recruitment and counseling. Proactive selection, preparation and counseling with learners entering distance learning programs were key factors for success and course completion. Learners who demonstrated a sense of motivation, time management, and program/academic goals were more successful in the project than those who transferred from more traditional courses and wanted to avoid class meetings.

Orientation. Learners who attended mandatory group orientations cited fewer technical problems, reported greater ease of navigation, and had more successful program outcomes.

Conclusion 3: Cultivation of learners' motivations through the use of technology in developmental studies programs using distance education.

Learner connections. Inter-active and frequent contact was important for success. Although many learners appreciated the self-paced and individualized format of distance learning programs, they were quick to note that when questions or issues were resolved via e-mail or help desk, there were higher levels of satisfaction with the course and their expressed comfort level with technology. The more successful programs in this study had structured assignment schedules with learner contact requirements as part of the course.

Conclusion 4: Combination of campus-based support service and distance learning delivery systems as models of success for developmental learners.

Faculty development. As noted, faculty participants had varying levels of experience with technology and computer-based applications. Colleges offering more than five professional development opportunities, with faculty who were active in attending workshops and conferences, created more successful programs.

High standards of quality and content development. As might be expected, faculty who had experience with distance learning had successful outcomes. However, in a few instances, faculty who were using distance learning as a developmental math option for the first time were also very successful. We concluded that those faculty members who were first-time users of distance learning were most successful when they showed great interest in computer-based applications and self-initiated the learning curve of teaching with technology. Rather than tag on a few online lessons with existing course assignments, they reviewed lessons closely, and were actively involved in new curriculum development and content upgrade for their courses. They were also very active in seeking technical support and assistance from the vendor's help desk and their assigned educational software consultant.

College leadership and pro-gram support. The colleges that designated priority, support and commitment of resources for technical investments saw successful responses from both faculty and learners. Although transparent to the learners, we found administrative support cleared the way for successful implementation, program development, and learner access leading to high-quality services and opportunities for learners.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.