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Some faculty members are required to perform service to the community. Providing free education that improve societal value is one of the many ways to deliver the service. However, we recently are faced with a difficult situation in this channel, and I hope faculty here who had experience in teaching outside the school or social science researchers working in underprivileged groups will be able to point us to the right direction.

We are a small group of software developers and teachers who give free computer lessons to pretty much anyone who is interested. So far we have taught 32 students and they are all working as programmers in various places. However the dropout rate has been 8 to 1 so far. But lately the big problem is finding new students.

We don't charge money, there are no contracts to sign and we even provide required software and books free of charge. Sometimes we even supply the computers. The classes are online last about a hour a day. Still, even with sharing success stories and having former students themselves talk to new students, we are finding it hard to find new students who would be interested in taking the classes. I personally know people who would rather complain about the unfairness of life than take a job working as a paid intern somewhere.

My question is: What can we do to make free learning more appealing to people who are not in a school environment?

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    As much as I think this is a GREAT effort, this doesn't seem to be about "academia" so much as "professional training not involving graduate school", which is off topic here. – ff524 Jun 18 '14 at 15:51
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    You are probably right. But I am guessing there would be many educators here who may have faced similar situations and found some novel ways to get around. I am hoping for their ideas. If you think there is a better forum for me to ask this question, please feel free to suggest. – w2olves Jun 18 '14 at 16:31
  • I don't know of a better site for this question, but unfortunately that doesn't make it more on-topic here. – ff524 Jun 18 '14 at 16:33
  • I edited it to improve relevance. There are faculty members who need to deliver similar service and I believe there are social scientists here who may be able to help. The setting is not academic, but academic people do occasionally need to do jobs like what user3067743 is doing. – Penguin_Knight Jun 18 '14 at 16:38
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    @Penguin_Knight: Still needs some work, but it is better. – aeismail Jun 18 '14 at 16:41
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You have a program that sounds almost too good to be true (e.g., free classes, free software, free books, no contract). And your biggest challenge is that you cannot find new students, right? Well, two things come to mind. First, there is a "catch" -- that is, when it is too good to be true, it probably isn't true. Are there any hidden costs or problems with the program that you have not shared or identified? Second, what is the extent of the mismatch between the objectives of this program and the needs, values, and interest of your target group?

My recommendation would involve careful analysis of both questions. You are likely to find a lot of good information by following up with those who have dropped out. Ask them why they dropped out. Barriers to attendance? Then you need to figure out why more people aren't signing up. Consider surveying individuals who were provided the information but chose not to sign up.

  • None of us looked at it from that angle (too good to be true). Thank you. We did survey the dropouts, the biggest reason appeared to be immediate need of employment vs education then employment. We hoped it would be because of the study materials but that wasn't the case. – w2olves Jun 18 '14 at 20:54
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I am a biology education researcher who has created and run free online preparation courses for students entering a college introductory biology course, so I've done a good bit of reading on this subject.

In March 2014, the Public Policy Institute of California published a report on student learning in online courses in California community colleges. http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_514HJR.pdf

They found that students do significantly worse in online courses compared to their own performance in face-to-face courses. Students who showed the biggest negative effect of online courses were:

  • younger
  • African American or Latino
  • male
  • those with low intent to transfer to 4-year college
  • those with low high school GPA

If your target demographic is within this group, they will find an online course more difficult and unsupportive than a face-to-face course would be. As a researcher, I would like to see if a cohort of your students that meets together to watch videos and work on homework is more successful than a cohort that takes your online version.

  • I think the summary of my issues would be a sum of your take and @Brian take. There is an inherent lack of trust about something for free this might be the cause of not finding enough people to sign up. The dropout rate is probably directly related to lack of face to face interaction. Back to the drawing board for us. Thanks to everyone for their inputs – w2olves Jun 19 '14 at 13:45

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