As California's community colleges add more online classes to their offerings, a new report from the Community College Research Center has found that students are more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from traditional ones.
The report, which comes from the Teachers College at Columbia University and was written by Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars, recommends that colleges bolster support systems to increase students' success rates in these classes.
While several reports have compared students' performance in online classes against traditional formats, this report focuses exclusively on community colleges and adjusts its analysis for student qualities. The study, covered this week in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, tracked community college students for nearly five years in Washington state, and its findings are similar to those of an earlier study by the same authors in Virginia.
The authors found that students who participated in online courses had lower success rates even after controlling for certain characteristics that tend to influence students' success, including their previous academic performance and the number of hours they worked while taking classes. Overall, online course completion rates were 8 percentage points lower than face-to-face rates, they found.
The gap in success rates was even bigger for remedial English and math classes, which saw online course success rates that were 12 percentage points lower than completion rates for the face-to-face equivalents.
The researchers tracked more than 50,000 students in Washington state community and technical colleges from fall 2004 through spring 2009.
They found that, in general, students who worked more hours and were more academically prepared were more likely to take an online class. Online courses also were significantly more popular among students who were female, white, fluent in English, transfer-oriented, eligible for financial aid, had never enrolled in remedial education or were older than 25 when they entered college.
In California, community colleges Chancellor Jack Scott has advocated an increase in online education as one of several ways the college system ought to try to do more with less. In his 2009 speech [PDF], "Living in Difficult Times," Scott said increasing the system's online class offerings was one of five necessary innovation strategies at a time when on-campus facilities are often "stretched to the max."
An April 2011 report [PDF] from the chancellor's office shows that online education has grown exponentially at the colleges and that students are less likely to successfully complete these classes than traditional courses.
The report looked at distance education courses, 89 percent of which are online classes. In 2005-06, community college campuses in California offered 21,407 distance education course sessions. By 2009-10, the colleges offered 39,964 distance education course sessions – an 87 percent increase. By another measure, enrollment in distance education classes grew from about 12 percent of total enrollment to about 24 percent in the five-year period.
Source: California Community CollegesThe growth of distance education at California community colleges
The report shows a gap between success rates for online and traditional courses. Face-to-face classes had a success rate of 67 percent – 10 percentage points higher than the rate for distance education courses. Unlike the Teachers College statistical analysis, however, the chancellor's office report does not adjust its analysis for student characteristics.
|Success rates for credit distance education and traditional education course sessions (duplicated head count)|
|Credit distance education sessions||53%||53%||54%||55%||57%|
|Credit traditional education sessions||64%||65%||65%||67%||67%|
|Source: California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office|
A survey of more than 9,000 California community college students who had withdrawn from distance education courses indicated that the top reason for dropping was a personal challenge related to their family, health, job or child care.
About 30 percent said they couldn't handle the combination of study and work duties, while another 30 percent said they had fallen behind and it was hard to catch up.
The Teachers College report recommends that colleges do more to improve student learning in online formats. For one, the study suggests requiring that before students can sign up for an online class, they take an assessment on whether online learning is a good fit for them.