Online learning is hard, but helpful

California community college students are taking more courses online, but they’re less likely to complete and pass an online course than a traditional course, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Online course offerings are increasing rapidly, the report notes. So is enrollment. Nearly 20 percent of non-remedial students took at least one online course in 2012. Online participation is much lower for Latinos and higher for African Americans.

In 2012, the pass rate was 60.4 percent in online courses, 70.6 percent in traditional courses. After controlling for differences among students and other factors, researchers estimated students in online courses are 11 to 14 percentage points less likely to complete the course with a passing grade.

Achievement gaps widen in online courses: African Americans, Latinos, males, part-time students, and those under age 25 or with lower levels of academic skill are “likely to do markedly worse in online courses than in traditional ones,” the study found. 

However, online learning appears to benefit stronger students.

Students are more likely to earn an associate’s degree, a vocational certificate, or transfer to a four-year college if they take at least some online courses. This is an indication that for some students—generally those who earn the most units—online learning offers the availability and flexibility to help them achieve their goals.

“Students overall are less successful in online courses than in traditional ones, but online learning is still an important tool that some are successfully using to achieve their college and career goals,” said Hans Johnson, co-author and PPIC Bren fellow. “It will be important to broaden that success to encompass the diverse population of community college students.”

PPIC recommends improving strategic planning and coordination so “online courses could be used to satisfy unmet demand for traditional ones, particularly prerequisites and other classes that act as gatekeepers to success.” In addition, online credits should be “portable” to any community college in the state.

Other recommendations include: using a standardized learning management system to provide data on student engagement and gathering cost information.

Distance Education is the New Normal according to a special report by Community College Week.  “As the new kid on the educational block, distance educators face heightened scrutiny from state and federal regulators, all while proving that online education produces the same — or better — academic outcomes than traditional face-to-face classes.”