In last week’s post, I shared research that presented a confusing and troubling paradox regarding online learning. Across the research, it was clear that online learning provides some educational benefits to students but also creates some challenges. Here is a summary (be sure to check out last week’s post for links to all of the original research articles):
- Online learning can increase access to education for some disadvantaged populations.
- Online classes have an 11-14% lower retention rate than similar face-to-face classes.
- Students who take some classes online are more likely to complete the community college degree than students who only complete their classes in traditional, face-to-face formats.
- Students who took some online and face-to-face classes were more likely to be retained than fully online students.
- Students who took more than 40% of their classes online were less likely to attain their college credentials.
Did you follow all of that? I know it’s confusing and (at times) somewhat contradictory but I think we can draw some conclusions from these data points. Last week, I asked readers to share their take on the research (check out their comments on the post), but what are mine? Here are some big takeaways.
- Online students need to be self-regulated learners. Looking across the research, it is clear that some students are successful as online learners and others have difficulty. Recalling a study shared in a post from a few years ago, Xu and Jaggars (2014) examined performance and retention in online and face-to-face community college classes across Washington State. Comparing the different populations across delivery types, the researchers found that “older students adapted more readily to online courses than younger students” (pg. 23). In addition to taking classes, older students are also more likely to have to manage work and family responsibilities. These constraints create an impetus for older students to self-regulate their learning and manage classroom expectations. I worry, however, that we use this research to say which students can take online classes and which ones cannot. Instead, I argue that online instructors need to develop additional supports that can help students develop self-regulation strategies. (Can anyone say checklists?)
- Building a community is key. I’m fascinated by the “tipping point” data that shows that students taking 40% of their classes online is the upper boundary for successful attainment of their degree. But, why does that happen? I believe it’s about connection to a larger community. Students who take more than 40% of their classes online may feel isolated from the campus community. With so many online classes, they may not have as many peers who can provide emotional and academic support. These students also may not be making connections with faculty. As more programs move online, it’s critical that institutions develop supports to help fully online students engage with peers and with faculty. One strategy could be to create cohorts of students who progress through online programs together. This would help the students develop stronger connections with their peers, and in turn, with the institution itself.
- We still have more to learn. While the current research gives some information about the impacts of online learning, it raises additional questions. My hope, however, is that we shift the focus away from examining retention and success data and begin to develop a stronger research base for instructional strategies that positively impact student learning online.