In higher education, there has been a raging debate about open educational resources and MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), as part of a larger discussion regarding online education in general. Last year, the New York Times even published an article titled “The Year of the MOOC,” describing the efforts of edX, Coursera, and Udacity to build out free, massive, credit-less courses to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.
While colleges have been rushing to put course content online, legislators and higher education policy makers have been kicking around proposals to integrate MOOCs into the undergraduate curriculum. In California, there’s even a bill, SB 520, to create incentive grant programs to help faculty and campuses within the state’s public higher education systems design opportunities for certain lower division courses to go online. The rationale is that increasing the number of online course offerings for undergraduates will help relieve some of the bottlenecks in the state’s higher education systems (University of California, California State University and community colleges). If students can access online classes more quickly and efficiently than traditional face-to-face courses, they could in theory graduate faster and save money.
As MOOCs and other online educational resources become available, more Latino students are entering college. A recent study shows that Hispanic high school graduates are enrolling in college at a rate higher than their white counterparts. Data also shows that these students tend to face challenges completing college. And another study from 2011 shows that Latino students who take online classes are less likely to pass those classes and earned lower grades than Latino students who took comparable face-to-face (traditional) courses. Additionally, Latino students lag further behind the performance of white students in online courses. This could pose a problem for the growing Latino college student population.
Despite some warnings of what the online course revolution could mean for Latino students, there are few Latinos who are actively engaged in the online learning professional arena. Politic365 had the opportunity to speak with two of the most prominent Latino voices in online education: former California State Senator Dean Florez, President and CEO of the 20 Million Minds Foundation and Emerson Malca, the co-founder of StudyRoom.
The 20 Million Minds Foundation’s goal is to provide affordable, quality textbooks that college students can download for a nominal cost or read online for free. Florez and his colleagues are interested in building textbooks in core subject areas that don’t change drastically so students can free up some of their education budget for other things and avoid being discouraged from taking certain courses because the textbooks are too costly.
In terms of the magnitude in savings, Florez explained, “If we completed 25 digital textbooks in STEM, and just 10% of the faculty in the nation adopted those books in their classrooms, students would save a billion dollars.”
When it come to Latino students, Florez sees open textbooks as being particularly helpful because of the concentration of Latinos in the community colleges. In some subject areas, the required textbooks cost more than the course. Additionally, Latinos are early adopters of technology, especially mobile technologies, so he believes if textbooks are readily accessible via phone or tablet, there are fewer excuses to avoid studying.
Florez touched upon a major challenge in online education rhetorically asking, “How do we make it more personal, more peer-to-peer?” He identified socially interactive tools and meaningful study groups as being tools to help increase pass rates.
When it comes to peer interaction, a 2010 computer San Francisco State computer engineering graduate from Peru, Emerson Malca is leading the way. He and his company, Luma Education, developed StudyRoom to recreate the classroom collaborative experience online. Just a few years ago when he was taking classes, he found himself taking pictures of the white board with his iPhone to refer back to when he was studying. Malca wondered why his professors used 1990s technology in the classroom when more up to date tools were available.
Malca explained that people in the education technology companies sell products to administrators, and that he takes a different approach instead focusing on the needs of students, designing tools for the user who is supposed to be benefitting the most from the technologies.
“When a student enters StudyRoom, there’s a little avatar that walks into a virtual classroom. People can post questions, they can ask for help, and the professor can come in and hold office hours,” Malca told Politic365.
Malca’s StudyRoom isn’t just for MOOCs; he said that even high school students are using his tool.
While Florez and Malca seek expanded access to online education for all students, they are uniquely positioned to address the issues that Latino students face in online course completion because of their own experiences in the classroom. If the Latino community is not adequately represented in the open, online education debate, the disparities that Hispanic college students already face could worsen.