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St. Pete College delving into online readiness courses

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CLEARWATER - A new online math tutoring program is exceeding enrollment expectations to such an extent in its first few weeks that professors at St. Petersburg College want to create more in time for the new school year this fall. The free "Get Ready For College" math course has about 850 students from across Florida enrolled; many are hoping to avoid remedial classes at St. Petersburg College next year. The massive open online course, or MOOC, lets students work through online math lessons developed by SPC teachers at their own pace from anywhere in the world and grades practice tests to track their progress. The program's popularity - hundreds signed up the first day - has encouraged the school to add reading and writing courses in the fall, said Jesse Coraggio, the college's associate vice president of institutional effectiveness, research and grants. College officials also are waiting to hear if they will receive a $300,000 grant from the Florida Department of Education that would help them create more courses in a shorter period of time. Word could come as soon as this week. The online programs are aimed at students who have been away from school for a while and recent high school graduates who need to sharpen their math skills before starting college."Someone who graduated from high school three or four years ago may have been good at algebra at one point, but over time you loose those skills because you don't use them," Coraggio said. "This is an ideal solution for that kind of student coming back to school, because it gives them an opportunity to refresh their competencies before they have to take required placement tests to enroll in college. "Likely, they'll do much better so they don't have to do remedial courses, they can go right into college-level coursework."More than half of first-time college students at SPC are placed in remedial courses, and most struggle in math, Coraggio said. Remedial classes not only slow down graduation and rack up bigger tuition bills but also lower self esteem, which leads to more dropouts, he said. Once a student completes the Get Ready For College course with a 70 percent or higher on the final test, the student receives a certificate allowing him to retake the placement test and have another shot at getting into a college-level math class. Because high school students also take the placement test in dual-enrollment classes, Coraggio is hoping to get more Pinellas County high school students involved and is developing a separate registration page for high schoolers to get more information about where they come from and what help they need. A handful is already taking the math class, he said. In fact, his daughter Sydney, a rising 10th-grader at St. Petersburg Collegiate High School, and her friends worked through practice runs of the program in its developmental stage before it launched in May. "They actually enjoyed it, I think," Coraggio said. "They liked the format and that it didn't take too long to complete."Pinellas County Schools is working with SPC to further develop the program for high school students, said Judith Vigue, the school district's director of advanced studies and academic excellence. Information about the MOOC will be provided to administrators, counselors and students this fall, so they can use it to prepare students for college readiness tests or use it for remedial work, she said. A number of students enrolled in the math course are other college math professors looking to replicate the MOOC at their own schools, such as Valencia College in Orlando and Hillsborough Community College, Coraggio said. SPC is the first state college out of the 27 in Florida to offer a MOOC, he said. Though schools such as Harvard University and the University of Florida have jumped on MOOC's as they've emerged over the last few years, most course offerings are on complex topics such as artificial intelligence and engineering. SPC's math course could be beneficial to anyone that needs a "refresher," Coraggio said. When students first sign into the course, which usually takes a few weeks to complete, they're greeted with a video of communications professor Tony Smith, who assures them that they'll soon get the "confidence boost" they need for success. Students work through six modules covering everything from fractions and conversions to graphing, earning completion badges when they score a 90 percent or higher on the section's practice test. If they get stuck on a particular problem, guided instructional videos, notes and practice exercises help students work through it. Right now, the whole project involves just 10 people, who each were paid about $1,000 for their efforts, but the demand is huge. At the University of Florida, which became the state's first university to offer MOOC's in March, there are five classes, such as instructor Wendell Porter's semester-long Global Sustainable Energy course, which at one point enrolled 22,000 students from as far away as Norway and Mozambique. Though students don't receive credit for the coursework, and most of the "grades" are just based on completion, the material is the same Porter presents to paying students, he said. It takes a lot of time and energy, but as legislators push for more online learning, Porter expects that the free courses will only grow over the next few years."In just one class, I'm teaching more students then I've ever taught in a classroom put together," said Porter, 57. "It's incredibly nerve-racking, but it's almost addictive to talk with them and read their posts. "There are certainly benefits to staying in a classroom and building those face-to-face relationships, but the opportunities we have now with today's technologies are incredible. This is the future, and I don't want to be left behind." Of course, the true impact of SPC's math program won't be felt until graduation day, when he's hoping to shake a lot more hands, Coraggio said.

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