University of Wisconsin-System

Teaching thousands and still keeping it personal


At the University of Wisconsin-System (UWS), the problem of high school graduates not having the skills they needed to succeed in college was particularly pervasive in the area of math. Great numbers of students were arriving who needed either remedial math, or a change of plans. In a student population of 170,000, the ramifications were overwhelming. In response, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UW-L) developed an online FastTrack math readiness course using the Brightspace platform. With the emergence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), UWS saw the value of offering the course to the world—but quickly transforming it to a MOOC would require unprecedented teamwork and a new approach to teaching.

At a glance

Client: University of Wisconsin-System
Students: 170,000

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  • From a Local Solution to an International Concern


  • Teamwork Was Needed—in a Big Way
  • A Flexible Classroom with Separate Paths
  • Teaching Thousands and Keeping it Personal


  • Students Get into College Math—and that’s the Whole Point

The Challenge

From a Local Solution to an International Concern

The original FastTrack online course had a simple purpose: prepare UWS students for their college math courses. Transforming that concept to a MOOC meant reaching out to a vast international audience with multiple motivations.

“The students in our math MOOC range in age from 11 to 87, they come from nearly every state and over 40 countries,” says Robert Hoar, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UW-L and MOOC administrator. “Some want to know what math looks like in America, others are in their 30s and 40s and thinking of returning to school. Some just want the math skills.”

Huge changes were needed to accommodate the incredible diversity. For starters, the MOOC required an intuitive design that could be easily navigated by learners who had never used Brightspace technology before. Also, because time zones were an issue, there had to be an alternative to online student meetings without sacrificing the human touch.

The needs of incoming high school students, however, remained paramount. And reaching them meant finding a way to include their supporters, including parents, teachers, tutors and friends.

calculator on piece of paper

The Solution

Teamwork Was Needed—in a Big Way

Serious scaling was required, and it had to be done quickly to reach students before they became part of the university community. Across campuses and departments, experts at UWS came together to develop the infrastructure of the MOOC using the Brightspace platform—and the team grew along with content development.

“Doing this right required a team, and the right team,” says Hoar. “We had faculty, IT staff, our D2L colleagues, video and content specialists and a large group of math education students at two campuses to act as tutors. It was a big team but it was a great team and I think it’s what led to success.”

At every stage, D2L was there to ensure the functionality of the MOOC. Says Hoar, “The content is great but if you don’t deliver it correctly it is not going to matter. Both the platform and the team helped that delivery go well.”

A Flexible Classroom with Separate Paths

“What makes our math MOOC unique is that it offers two paths,” says Hoar. “Students can either go through the seven-week course with an instructor as the guide or they can go at their own pace. From the students’ perspective, there are no differences in the quality of education.”

According to Cari Mathwig Ramseier, LMS Administrator and Faculty Consultant at UW-L, the new challenge was engaging students with various motivations. “Many of the tools in the Brightspace platform help provide a sense of time and place to anchor the instruction, such as using the News tool as an agenda and the list of upcoming events on Calendar. Also, using video to provide content creates the feeling that the instructor is there.

“The use of all these tools can be enough so that most students feel engaged, no matter what their motivation,” adds Mathwig Ramseier.

Teaching Thousands and Keeping it Personal

With almost 2,000 learners in the course, it became impossible to maintain the degree of human interaction that was present in the original FastTrack course. And yet, according to Hoar, anecdotal feedback suggests the interaction helps improve persistence and satisfaction. In part, it’s why the original course worked so well.

In place of online student meetings, the MOOC offers online tutoring during 38 different hours each week. As well, discussion forums help users connect to others in similar circumstances, such as those returning to college as adults, to build social communities. Instructors also add the human touch through live lectures and email.

For high school students, the open nature of the MOOC platform allows those who support student learning to join in the experience. “Unlike a typical college course, anyone can drop in and take part so students don’t have to go it alone,” says Hoar.

"We made great use of Release Conditions feature to scaffold students’ learning through the course, requiring them to perform at a particular level before moving on. The result was that students’ average scores were quite good with strong overall pre-to-post-test improvement."

Cari Mathwig Ramseier, LMS Administrator and Faculty Consultant, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

The Results

Students Get into College Math—and that’s the Whole Point

The average pre-test score for over 1,100 students, including students from both synchronous and asynchronous paths, was approximately 45%. The first one hundred students to complete the course had an average post-test score of just over 76%.[1]

“Although the important thing is that students who complete the course have a similar experience to the pilot project students, 97% of them were able to place into college-level math courses,” says Hoar. “I think the MOOC is doing what we hoped it would: it’s helping students at home and around the world achieve their goals, whatever their goals may be.”

[1] Results courtesy of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

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