CCRC: Online courses can widen achievement gap

Learning online is especially difficult for lower-achieving students concludes a working paper by researchers at Columbia’s Community College Research Center.  Younger students, males and blacks also did worse in online courses than in traditional face-to-face courses, researchers found after analyzing nearly 500,000 courses taken by more than 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington State.

“Low-cost online courses could allow a more-diverse group of students to try college, but . . .  also widen achievement gaps,” notes the Chronicle of Higher Education.

All students who take more online courses are less likely to attain a degree, the study found. But it’s worse for more vulnerable students.

“We found that the gap is stronger in the underrepresented and underprepared students,” said Shanna Smith Jaggars, one of the authors. “They’re falling farther behind than if they were taking face-to-face courses.”

Online learning can still be a great tool, she said, particularly for older students who juggle studying and raising a family. For those students, as well as female and higher-performing students, the difference between online and physical classrooms was more marginal, according to the study.

“So for older students, you can sort of see the cost-benefit balance in favor of taking more courses online,” Ms. Jaggars said. “They might do a little worse, but over all it’s a pretty good trade-off for the easier access. But where a student doesn’t need online courses for their access, it’s unclear if that is a good trade-off.”

Writing courses attracted many poor learners, the study found. Online students had the grestest difficulties with social science courses, such as psychology and anthropology, and the applied professions, such as business and nursing.

Researchers suggested screening out students likely to do poorly, providing early warnings for struggling students, teaching online learning skills in some courses and/or working to improve the quality of online courses.