Troubles with Online College? More questions than answers.

Recently, Columbia University’s Community College Research Center released a comprehensive study examining the adaptability of students to online learning.  The research examined over 500,000 courses taken by over 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington Stated and studied students’ ability to persist and earn strong grades in online courses relative to their ability to do so in face-to-face courses.  Taken as a whole, the report seems pretty damning for online education.  Looking at different sub-groups of students based on academic preparedness, age, gender, race and socioeconomic status, the study found that every sub-group performed significantly better in their face-to-face courses than their online one.  Additionally, every sub-group had significantly higher persistence rates in their face-to-face courses than their online courses.  The take-away:   Students are doing poorly in online courses.

The report is compelling and echoes some of the statistics on completion rates in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  In some reports, almost 90% of students drop out of MOOCs before the end of the course.  I’m sure that some people are interpreting this data to mean that online education is a complete failure and a waste of money.  Before drawing conclusions like that, however, I think institutions of higher education are better off focusing how online education can be improved and asking some of the hard questions inherent in the study.  Here are some that come to mind:

Why are students doing poorly in online classes?  As the report documents, males, younger students, African-American students and students with lower levels of prior academic performance had more difficulty adapting to online classes than other populations.  Why?  Are there maturity issues apparent in some younger students that impede their success?  Is there a requisite skill base needed to be successful in an online class?  Are students with higher reading abilities more successful in online classes?  Will students with higher executive functions perform better than students with lower executive functions? Are there supports or structures that could help all students perform better in online classes?

How were the online classes organized?  While the report examines students’ performance in class, the study doesn’t focus on the online learning environments at all.  Were students navigating digital dumping grounds of text-based material in their online courses?  Did the structure of the course limit the students’ engagement or participation?  Did the structure of the course limit student-student interaction which can be a critical element for students’ success in online courses?  Did the online course incorporate multimedia to expand instructional delivery methods?

What is the online instructors’ role in students’ success?  What type of training did instructors receive to teach online?  Have instructors built the capacity to design and manage online courses?  Do instructional designers manage some of those responsibilities?  How do different design methods impact student success?

The Columbia study recognizes some of these questions in their work.  The authors identify that improving higher education would require “substantial new investments in course design, faculty professional development, learner and instructor support.”  The report also acknowledges that this commitment is necessary since “online coursework represents an indispensible strategy in postsecondary education, as it improves flexibility for both students and institutions and expands educational opportunities among students who are balancing school with work and family demands.”  While the study offers few solutions to the challenges facing online education, it provides an important starting point for more engaged conversations and research.

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