Summer bridge programs are a popular approach to helping students close gaps before they start their first year of college. These intensive, four to five week interventions aim to address multiple areas of academic need. Research suggests that summer bridge programs can help students start college on stronger footing, at least in the short term, although benefits fade by the end of two years without additional support. Because of their financial and time costs, summer programs are not a practical solution for everyone. In fact, students who most need remediation may also be those who most need to work during the summer to pay for college.

Some have posited that integrating instructional technology into summer bridge could improve college readiness at a lower cost than standard face-to-face programs. As the final experiment in a multi-year partnership to study hybrid learning, Ithaka S+R worked with five campuses in the University System of Maryland to conduct a pilot and a randomized field experiment to test whether an adaptive learning product provided by Pearson could be used to offer more accessible, lower-cost summer programs. In “Can Online Learning Improve College Math Readiness?“, Rebecca Griffiths, Matt Chingos, and Christine Mulhern report that having access to this online, adaptive software improves students’ math placement scores, though not necessarily longer-term math outcomes, at a substantially lower cost than face-to-face summer bridge.

For the field experiment, incoming first-year students at three institutions were randomly assigned to treatment groups and control groups. Treatment group students were invited to participate in the program and provided with free access to MyFoundationsLab, a Pearson product enhanced with Knewton’s adaptive learning engine, that identifies specific skill gaps and allows students to work independently online to address those gaps with interactive instructional materials and assessments. Control group students either received no communications or were provided access to a website with static materials.

Between 40% and 70% of invited students opted to participate in the treatment across the three sites. At two of the three institutions, students who had access to MyFoundationsLab were significantly more likely to retake the placement test and to improve their scores. However, grades in subsequent math-related courses and the share of students who took and passed math courses among treatment group students were not statistically different from those of students in the control groups.

MyFoundationsLab costs $36.30 for ten-week access per student. This is dramatically less than the average of over $1,300 per student for a campus-based program cited in one study, but the return in terms of subsequent math success may be lower. It seems likely that an optimal scenario involves a mix of face-to-face instruction and online work. Although more research is needed, the pilot tests in this study suggest that online technology can be used to reduce instructor cost per student for blended summer programs.

In short, MyFoundationsLab adaptive learning software can be used to offer a low-cost intervention that leads to improved placement test scores, but not necessarily to improved performance in math courses. It is possible that different software or more effective messaging could spur greater student engagement with the online system, or that a blended approach could achieve better outcomes. Given what we know now, however, these findings underscore the need for caution in relying on online-only solutions to close the college readiness gap for struggling students.