Online education is expanding rapidly, but there’s no consensus on how well it works, reports Inside Higher Ed.
Online advocates cite an Education Department meta-analysis (pdf) that concludes: “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” That’s not necessarily so, respond researchers at the Community College Research Center, who found all-online classes no better than traditional classes for college students.
The Education Department’s meta-analysis used 51 published studies, but only 28 compared face-to-face courses with fully online courses, CCRC points out. The seven studies of fully online semester-length college courses showed “no strong advantage or disadvantage in terms of learning outcomes.”
What is more, these studies consider courses that were taken by relatively well-prepared university students, so their results may not generalize to traditionally underserved populations. . . . without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.
Online classes are being promoted for working adults and parents, who have trouble attending campus classes, said CCRC researcher Shanna Smith Jaggars. But low-income students may not have high-speed Internet at home.
Other studies have also found that academically underprepared students are more likely to withdraw from an online course than a face-to-face course, and that overall withdrawal rates for online courses are two to three times higher than for face-to-face courses.
A CCRC study of online learning at community colleges, due later this summer, will show much higher withdrawal rates than in the Education Department study, Jaggars said.
California should develop an all-online community college, argue James Fay, academic vice president at Cerro Coso College and economist Jane Sjogren in the Sacramento Bee. Golden State Online, as they call it, would model itself on the British Open University and Rio Salado Community College in Arizona, which employ a small core of full-time faculty to develop high-quality courses.
A director of assessment would ensure that students meet nationally benchmarked standards as they complete rigorous course and program requirements. For example, students in both academic and career courses could be assessed on their mastery of Work Keys, a series of tests used nationally to measure academic and job skills as well as work readiness.
. . . Golden State Online would offer most of its courses in flex-time formats of four to eight weeks, on an as-needed basis, and would not be bound by traditional semester or quarter academic schedules. Modular courses would let students skip or test out of material that they had already mastered, thus accelerating progress toward their career goals.
“Golden State Online would be a “laboratory of experimentation on what works and what doesn’t in the relatively new field of online learning,” Fay and Sjogren argue.