OERs Help Cal State LA Close the Equity Gap, Promote Student Success

This spring semester, the precalculus team in the math department at Cal State LA drew on their expertise and a powerful combination of partnerships to help students to excel, even in uncertain times. The school has worked with ACUE for several years to equip educators with effective teaching practices. And, Cal State LA uses Open Education Resources (OERs) like OpenStax to reach more students.

For decades, issues around equity gaps in higher education have challenged top educators across the world. Many believe there is no single event that has shone a spotlight on equity issues more clearly than COVID-19.

The spring 2020 semester will likely go down as a unique and especially difficult semester for students and staff alike on post-secondary campuses across the nation, as the rapid spread of COVID-19 halted in-person learning and launched instructors into the fully online world of remote teaching.

The Power of Partnership

Thankfully, at universities such as Cal State LA, a powerful combination of partnerships has allowed their students and faculty to excel, even in uncertain times.

For years, Cal State LA has been recognized for its commitment to innovative teaching and student success. The school has worked for several years to equip educators with effective teaching practices through ACUE and to reach more students with Open Education Resources (OERs) like OpenStax, Canvas and Rover—all of which have proved to be invaluable as the math faculty transitioned to remote learning.

“OER is very helpful when the resources are meticulously prepared—didactically, pedagogically and scientifically,” says ACUE-credentialed professor Hichem Hajaiej.

Checking in on Students

The timing of California’s shelter-in-place order came just one week before Cal State LA’s second common midterms. Hajaiej, who also serves as coordinator for precalculus courses, remembered how his supervisor at the High School of Pedagogy of Lausanne, a famous Swiss pedagogist, had shared that “a good coordinator must always opt for the best solution for his students and instructors, even if this requires extra work for him.”

This thinking led Hajaiej to survey his students to discover how the pandemic would impact their ability to learn.

“It turned out that some students can only connect at night, others were working to survive, and some needed to take care of their families,” he says. “I did take into account all these kinds of problems that any student may encounter and made sure to offer a solution that was fair and practical. I work a lot on equity and inclusiveness, and this was a good opportunity for me to put it into practice.”

Adjusting for Change

From the first day of sheltering in place, the course coordination team, Hajaiej and his assistant Sharon Hung, reviewed all the midterms of precalculus and adjusted the exam accordingly to account for changes in instruction. Hajaiej worked with OpenStax to use its Rover online homework platform on the implementation of the midterm on the platform. Though it wasn’t a quick or easy adjustment, implementing midterms for students on a platform in such a short time wouldn’t have been possible without the prior OER foundation and the existing collaboration between him and OpenStax.

“The successful transition of online instruction in precalculus is also the fruit of a teamwork: The support of Cal State LA’s dean of undergraduate studies was exceptional, the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning (CETL) offered many online courses to prepare instructors, and the Smart Start for Student Success program trained PLUS students to run virtual tutoring sessions in record time,” Hajaiej adds.

Sharon Hung, ACUE-credentialed adjunct math lecturer at Cal State LA and precalculus course specialist, agrees.

“The readings are available online, and they can be accessed anytime and anywhere. It gives students easy access and saves them hundreds of dollars,” she says. Though Hung shares that the transition to fully remote teaching has been a challenge for her and her students—both missing the in-person interactions that make learning so valuable—she notes that using Canvas, Zoom and Rover has allowed her to hold interactive virtual meetings, maintain office hours and accept and return written work during the rest of the semester.

Bao Ngoc Ngo, an ACUE-credentialed math lecturer at Cal State LA for six years, credits the partnership of the CETL, precalculus coordinator and Rover team with coordinating the shift to remote teaching: “When COVID-19 forced remote instruction, I have not struggled as much as I thought I would. Besides receiving endless support from the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning, our department’s precalculus coordination team works hard to coordinate the courses to make my teaching easier than before.”

Student Impact

Seeing the data back up their assumptions has been incredible. For instance, the pass rate of Hajaiej’s two precalculus classes for the second midterm was over 90 percent.

“The number of thank-yous I got from my students after I finished my first online lecture was incredible. I was so touched by all their nice messages. I felt that they did not want me to stop lecturing. I really missed them a lot,” he says. “Teaching is my oxygen, helping students is the air I breathe. In precalculus, I have also taken into the equation of students’ success the psychological and emotional aspects. In this extreme transition period, I felt that I needed to do more to help students overcome this new challenge. I definitely prepared them well for the reprise.”

“It was important to keep them updated right after the shelter-in-place order was announced and to give them a detailed account of the next steps and the extra help that Smart Start was offering. I sent individualized emails to all my students to check on them. I also sent the struggling and borderline ones their tailored action plan with some OER links that can help, and I tripled my office hours during the first week of reprise,” he continues. “I surveyed my students about their familiarity with Zoom. I prepared a video for those who did not feel comfortable with this tool and had a one-on-one virtual meeting with them. I also tried to keep them engaged by scavenger hunting. The participation was exceptional and there was excellent interaction between my students. The historic pass rates are tangible proof of our big success in this challenging transition.”