Research has shown that a key predictor of whether or not a student will complete a college degree is the number of credit bearing courses that they complete successfully during their first few terms of college enrollment (Research in Higher Education, 2016). The credential attainment rate for all U.S. students deserves improvement– just over 50% of students that enter postsecondary actually leave with a degree (National Student Clearinghouse, 2019). Even more disturbing, however, are the attainment rates for low-income and first-generation students and students of color. These students graduate at even lower rates. Consider, for example, that a student from a high-income family is five times more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24 than a student from a low-income family (The Pell Institute, 2018).
There is substantial evidence that low-income students and students of color achieve varying levels of success in general education gateway (introductory) courses; this impacts their momentum in the first year as well as their overall graduation and success rates. Research has found that irrespective of racial or economic background, those students who do not succeed in accumulating 30 course credits in their first year of college are more likely to leave higher education without earning a degree (Research in Higher Education, 2016). Additionally, lecture-based learning has been proven to be ineffective as a teaching modality for all learners and even more ineffective for low-income students, students of color, and female students. In STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses, lecture style courses have been proven harmful to disadvantaged learners and proven to reduce their course success rates (PNAS, 2014).
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to increasing the number of low-income and first-generation students and students of color earning a valuable postsecondary degree or credential. In seeking to help students achieve better success in these critical introductory general education courses, the foundation has been exploring whether adaptive courseware—digital content packaged as an entire course for delivery over the internet—can enhance student engagement and improve student success in these introductory courses, specifically for low-income and first-generation students and students of color.
In 2014, the Gates Foundation made investments to innovators and pioneers in digital learning to dramatically increase the quality, sophistication, and affordability of digital courseware. The foundation hoped that these digital learning tools would harness input and feedback from instructors and students for rapid improvement. Ultimately, the goal of these digital learning investments was to both invest in a new generation of courseware and help reduce achievement gaps in these critical high enrollment general education courses.
Low-income and first-generation students and students of color showed grade improvement of +0.16 standard deviation units, or movement from 50th to 56th percentile.
Next Generation Courseware Challenge Evaluation, SRI International
The Next Generation Courseware Challenge (NGCC) invited over 100 promising courseware providers to submit proposals for full course digital learning experiences. Through a competitive process, seven startup, nonprofit, and academic organizations that were leveraging the best of the current technology-enabled learning science were selected to be part of the three-year program. As part of the program, the providers developed courseware offerings that were adaptive, low-cost, and interactive: Acrobatiq, Cerego, CogBooks, Lumen Learning, OpenStax (Rice University), Smart Sparrow, Stanford Open Learning Initiative (OLI). To ensure impact at scale, these providers were encouraged to develop solutions that would reach 1 million students nationwide over the course of the three-year grant program.
Ultimately, thousands of instructors began incorporating courseware in their classrooms in the hopes of improving student completion rates through stronger learning experiences. The high quality courseware produced by these seven organizations improved many elements of the learning experience including: lowering the cost of required materials, improving deeper learning, feedback, and personalization, providing instructors with timely access to data and analytics, and increased flexibility and access to learning materials that enabled students to achieve greater success in these courses.
While the progress these grantees have made contributed to addressing this complex challenge, too many students today still don’t succeed in these consequential general education courses.
We hope the lessons and knowledge captured here renews focus on closing these pernicious equity gaps in undergraduate education and promotes evidence based approaches to improving and scaling student success. Helping these students achieve better success in their undergraduate education remains a vital mission of the foundation’s Postsecondary Success strategy. This problem is ultimately one that leadership, undergraduate faculty, and innovators and entrepreneurs in the world of digital learning must work together to solve together.
Other institutions can learn from the Next Generation Courseware Challenge grant as they implement digital courseware. The Every Learner Everywhere network was launched to support institutions in their digital learning implementations. To learn more, visit everylearnereverywhere.org.