Does Online Learning Help Community College Students Attain a Degree? Yes, in some cases, concludes research by Peter Shea, an associate professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany.
Online community college students in Virginia and Washington state have higher failure and dropout rates, according to earlier studies by the the Community College Research Center.
Shea, who used to run SUNY’s online education system, found the CCRC’s conclusions “counterintuitive,” he told Inside Higher Ed. Online education’s flexibility and convenience should help students advance, he believes.
In contrast to the CCRC studies, the Albany research found that students who had enrolled in at least one online course in their first year did not come into college with better academic preparation than did those who took no courses at a distance.
And students who took online courses at a distance were 1.25 times likelier to earn a credential (certificate, associate or bachelor’s degree) by 2009 than were their peers who had not taken any online courses. Those who started college with a goal of attaining a certificate (rather than a bachelor’s degree) and took online courses were 3.22 times as likely to earn a credential than were students who did not take online courses.
Shea used a nationally representative data set, he points out. Virginia and Washington state could be outliers.
Shanna Jaggars, a co-author of the Community College Research Center studies, said the Albany study may include more adult students. ”For older students who are working full-time and have children, the ability to maintain a full-time load by mixing in one or two online courses per semester may outweigh the negative consequences of performing slightly more poorly in each online course they take.”
Here’s how three community college teachers are using online learning to change the way they teach, reports Edudemic.
Meredith Carpenter explains how she “flips” instruction in economics and entrepreneurship classes at Haywood Community College (North Carolina).
Steve Lurenz of Mesa Community College (Arizona) uses an online forum to build a sense of community in his online history classes.
Paramedic Tom Stoudt, started Hero’s Academy, online training for emergency medical technicians in Illinois.
Online students expect a lot of support from instructors. Online teachers think students should be independent. The misaligned expectations lead to “frustration, confusion, and tension,” concludes a Community College Research Center study by Rachel Hare Bork and Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana. They interviewed students and instructors at two Virginia community colleges.
. . . most instructors felt that students should be solely responsible for being motivated, identifying the most important material, prioritizing course-related tasks, reviewing assignments in advance, and asking any questions of the instructor several days before assignments are due.
While students agreed that students should manage their time well and perform course tasks and assignments on schedule, they expected instructors to work more actively to make key tasks, material, priorities, and assignments clear; to motivate student learning by ensuring that materials were engaging; to inject their own presence into the course; and to support student learning by being proactive in providing substantive feedback.
Students expected written feedback on assignments. Instructors typically provided only a grade, expecting students to ask questions if they needed more information.
Students were disappointed when instructors didn’t comment on their discussion board posts. One student complained:
She’ll give us questions and in those questions it might ask you “Discuss such-and-such, being in depth with this, be specific with that” and you can put your opinion in there. But the thing is … you don’t get any feedback. And so it feels like “Why am I telling you anything if you don’t really [read it]? I mean like you are not responding to me in any kind of way.”
While students liked YouTube or PBS audiovisual clips, but they strongly preferred multimedia presentations created by the instructor. Hearing and seeing the instructor “provided a personal touch . . . giving students the sense that the instructor was actively teaching them.”
Students wanted teachers to “have a strong and frequent presence” online to guide them through the learning process.
Another student suggested that online instructors were implicitly telling students that they had to learn course content independently. “I think the problem with online teaching is that the teachers kind of tell you ‘Okay, here’s the book, you know, study pages 12 through 23 and know this for a test in a few days.’” The student continued that this approach did not work for him because “I can’t teach myself math.”
Many instructors saw themselves as course designers and managers rather than teachers.
Colleges should prepare students for the demands of studying online, the researchers suggest. Distance-learning orientation — offered before and during registration — could help students decide if they should take the course online or in a face-to-face classroom.
Readiness activities should provide practice in skills and knowledge needed for online learning, they add. They recommend “mandatory modules on time‐management, self-directed learning and computer literacy.”
Many community college students perform more poorly in online than face-to-face courses, writes Di Xu, a Community College Research Center research associate, in The EvoLLLution. Male students, blacks and Latinos and students with lower grades struggle the most. Many have trouble directing their learning, managing their time, overcoming technical difficulties and taking the initiative to communicate with instructors and classmates, Xu writes.
To be a “democratizing force,” online learning must support the academic success of high-need students.
For example, if a student fails to sign in to the online system, or fails to turn in an early ungraded assignment, the system could generate a warning for the instructor or for the college’s counseling department, who could in turn call the student to see if he or she is experiencing problems and to discuss potential supports or solutions.
. . . colleges could facilitate successful online learning by incorporating the teaching of self-directed learning skills into courses. This strategy would require the college to support instructors in developing materials, assignments and other pedagogical processes that cultivate self-directed learning skills.
Building self-directed learning skills “may not only help close the online performance gap, but also improve students’ overall performance and long-term persistence in college,” Xu concludes.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, 35, probably will discourage his kids from going to college when they’re old enough, he said in a discussion sponsored by the New America Foundation. “Recent college grads… come in with no skills that are usable to us, with the exception of programmers,” he said.
Buzzfeed president Jon Steinberg agreed that a college degree represents “a lot of debt and not necessarily a skill set.” He added, “I don’t want my children to go to college unless they … desperately [want to be] scholars… Otherwise, I’d much prefer them to do an internship.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the foundation, said her son, a junior in high school, has “learned more from the [free educational site] Khan Academy, in many ways, than he has in class.” Today’s teens think they “can learn what I need to learn online,” said Slaughter. “That sense that, ‘If I don’t go to college between 18 and 22, I won’t make it,’ is really changing.”
Online learning may work for the children of the elite, but ”first-generation college students want to learn face to face, writes Stacia L. Brown in The Atlantic. She teaches at an ethnically diverse community college in Baltimore. Each day, her students choose to sit at desks facing her rather than computer tables.
Their desire to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing me, is essential. It means, whether they realize it or not, that their concept of college is driven by human interaction. The Internet, which many of them access nonstop through smartphones, is a secondary resource in our classroom. I, the live person, smiling encouragingly as they expound on a thought, am the first.
Thirty percent of first-year college students are the first in their families to go to college, writes Brown.
First-gen college students find it difficult to adjust to most post-secondary learning without dedicated mentorship. Low-income first gens are four times more likely to leave college after the first year than their multi-generation peers. And a study by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board noted that the state’s first-gen drop-out rate for those in face-to-face, on-campus classes was 18 percent, as opposed to 25 percent for distance learners. Students like mine could not be tossed into the deep end of MOOC without having first spent whole semesters sitting at shared desks, raising their hands, and exchanging their writing among teachers, tutors, and peers.
Online instruction is “valuable and convenient” for some, but isn’t enough for first-generation students, concludes Brown.
When non-profit Tiffin University partnered with for-profit Altius Education to create an online associate degree program, Ivy Bridge College was hailed as a model. Now the regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, has shut down the online two-year college, reports the Washington Examiner.
The online community college offered an associate degree program that promised students an automatic transfer to one of over 150 traditional four-year institutions, depending on their GPA. Thanks to the program’s termination, about 2,000 students are now scrambling to find other accredited institutions that will allow them to finish their studies.
A March 2013 HLC investigation concluded that Ivy Bridge was not sufficiently under Tiffin’s control, had low retention rates and offered “very thin” content in some online courses.
By contrast, a 2010 HLC report praised Tiffin’s partnership with Ivy Bridge, saying, ”It addresses an underserved population through a strong curriculum, efficient and effective academic support, excellent instruction, and a very good online portal for program delivery.”
Ivy Bridge’s retention rates are low compared to bricks-and-mortar four-year institutions, but significantly higher than those at Ohio community colleges, according to the Examiner.
“The cited concerns about student success are BS,” an industry source who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution from accreditors told the Examiner. “Ivy Bridge catered to traditionally underserved adult part-time students and did quite well. HLC doesn’t ask for the same ‘success’ metrics from non-profit traditional institutions,” this source said.
In October 2012, the Gates Foundation gave Altius a $300,000 grant for providing “scalable access to quality college education” through “a robust student support model, proven pedagogical methods, and groundbreaking learning technologies.”
Higher education is a government-created cartel, writes Conn Carroll in an Examiner op-ed.
Ivy Bridge’s termination “could dump cold water on the online aspirations of some colleges, particularly ones that prefer to play it safe with their regional accreditor,” observes Inside Higher Ed.
Community colleges are creating free online courses and study guides to help students brush up on academic skills and avoid paying for no-credit remedial courses, reports Inside Higher Ed. Although some use free Khan Academy videos or other sources, instructors also are developing their own online content.
Cleveland’s Cuyahoga Community College developed a free online course to help high school students improve their math skills and place into college-level courses, reports The Quick and the Ed. Tri-C, as the college is known, incorporated Khan’s lectures, the open-source TeacherTube and Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, or MERLOT.
The Gates Foundation awarded $550,000 to 10 institutions trying to develop MOOC content for remedial and introductory courses. Tri-C used $50,000 in Gates funding to develop its course. Wake Tech partnered with Udacity to develop a remedial math course.
Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana created five free online courses without outside seed money. Open Campus classes, which are open to anyone, provide remediation in reading, writing and math. Instead of partnering with a MOOC provider, Bossier asked faculty members to design the courses, said Allison Martin, director of institutional effectiveness initiatives. “We think we have a better understanding about our own developmental education population,” she said.
The project’s leaders said they felt students at the college would react better to learning from online instructors they were likely to see on campus and in classrooms . . .
Most of Bossier’s students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, said Jim Henderson, the college’s chancellor. He said those students in particular do not react well to impersonal or “sterile” online courses.
“They’ve got to be able to see that face and know that ‘this is a person I can talk to,’ ” Henderson said.
Both the Tri-C and Bossier Parish courses are self-paced and competency-based. Students can retake modules until they reach mastery.
Tri-C uses game-style learning, said Sasha Thackaberry, the college’s director of eLearning technologies. “It actually teaches persistence and resilience.”
Most students are familiar with gaming. And college officials said nontraditional students in particular thrive on the positive feedback of progressing from level to level, rather than just receiving a single grade when they complete a course.
“The pressure isn’t on them to succeed,” said (E-learning Dean Charles) Dull. “It’s to learn.”
Students must master 80 percent of the competencies embedded in the non-credit course to earn a “digital badge” certifying mastery.
MOOC enthusiasts should consider a Community College Research Center survey that found many college students want “in-person discussion and on-the-spot feedback,” writes Mandy Zatynski on The Quick and the Ed. There’s a generational divide in online learning separating young students from those 30 and older, she writes.
. . . my brother and I are galaxies apart in terms of technology, even though he’s only six years younger. He has never known a world without computers, while I still remember the awe of searching on the Internet for the first time. He reads news from a screen; I flip through the Sunday paper. In college, he learned on computers in campus labs; I bought textbooks and highlighted relevant passages. I can’t reach my brother by calling him, but if I send a text message, my phone will buzz with an immediate reply.
She sides with the community college students who want to go to brick-and-mortar classrooms, listen to a live human being and ask questions in real-time. But the rising generation of students may prefer the convenience of an online course.
In the survey, students said they were more likely to take “easy” courses online – meaning ones they could teach themselves – but preferred a face-to-face environment for more complicated courses, such as science and foreign language. This speaks to a growing need to move general education curricula online, much like the University System of Georgia does with eCore. Students there can take the first two years of their four-year degree online, before moving into classes on campus required for their major. If more universities moved in this direction, it could streamline articulation agreements and transfer processes for students, ensuring that they wouldn’t lose credit if they decided to switch institutions—as many college students do.
The future of higher education is more likely to blend online and face-to-face coursework than to go all MOOC, Zatynski predicts.
Is online learning for steerage passengers, while only the elite actually meet their professors? Peter Sacks worries about stratifying and standardizing higher education on Minding the Campus.
Online learning will reduce higher education costs without harming student learning outcomes, argues former Princeton president William G. Bowen in Higher Education in the Digital Age. Bowen estimates teaching labor costs could be cut by 36 percent to 57 percent and cites a study by ITHACA, a non-profit organization, which found online students earn similar scores to students in traditional courses. Furthermore, access to online courses “could reduce the average time it takes to complete a degree, making colleges more productive, affordable and efficient.”
However, cutting teacher labor costs means cutting “interpersonal interactions that are an essential part of an authentic education,” Sacks writes.
. . . we should let fast and cheap educational programs provide students with basic skills and have the universities provide the real education. Faculty will then take on a new role: Instead of lecturing large classes, they will become expert consultants who guide learners in the application of information for solving, creating and inventing. David Brooks recently cited one professor’s prediction that universities will eventually tell students to take certain college courses online, “and then, when you’re done, you will come to campus and that’s when our job will begin.”
Currently, online learning is primarily for lower-income, lower-achieving students, writes Sacks, citing federal data. In 2007-08, the most recent data available, 18 percent of college students were enrolled exclusively in online programs. These students were more likely to attend an open-admissions college and to be the first in their families to attend college. Online programs provide access — to not-so-higher education, concludes Sacks.
Well-off students will attend the few colleges and universities that are wealthy enough to eschew standardization and automation. They alone will have real relationships with great faculty. A second, less wealthy group of students will use online courses for their general education and attend “authentic” institutions for a short while. For poorer students, online learning could well become the main course. They will attend institutions that, strictly speaking, grant post-high school credentials to the coach class.
At San Jose State, which is experimenting with online courses to reduce costs, philosophy professors criticized an edX course on justice taught by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor and an academic star.
In an open letter, philosophy professors said online courses from elite universities “would compromise the quality of education, stifle diverse viewpoints and lead to the dismantling of public universities,” reports the New York Times. “The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy depts. across the country is downright scary,” the letter said.
Provost Ellen Junn said nobody had told the philosophy department to use the Sandel course, however several professors said they felt pressured to offer it. Peter J. Hadreas, who chairs the department, “said that administrators had now arranged to offer it through the English department, reinforcing his concerns that it would be taught by professors who are not trained in philosophy and would be especially reliant on the edX materials.”
Sandel responded, writing, “I strongly believe that online courses are no substitute for the personal engagement of teachers with students, especially in the humanities.”
The completion gap between online and traditional courses is narrowing, reports a Instructional Technology Council survey on Trends in eLearning at community colleges. Nearly half of colleges surveyed said online students are as successful as students in face-to-face courses, reports Fred Lokken, dean of the WebCollege at Truckee Meadows Community College.
Distance education enrollments at community colleges continue to grow, with a move to “blended” or “hybrid” courses. However, the rate of growth has slowed, concludes the survey, which was released at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges in San Francisco.
While community colleges are “exploring ways to use massive open online courses and open educational resources in their curriculums,” many distance education administrators remain “skeptical,” reports Scott Jaschik on Inside Higher Ed.
Both MOOCs and OERs have been promoted as ways to help cash-strapped community colleges educate more students, many of whom themselves are cash-strapped.
On MOOCs, the survey found that only 1 percent of community colleges are offering course credits or certificates for MOOC completion. While another 44 are “beginning to explore options” that might incorporate MOOC content into programs, 42 percent reported that they had no plans to do so.
“As would be expected with something so new, campuses are cautious in their approach. Many community colleges are skeptical that a large-enrollment solution is appropriate for campuses that believe in smaller, more personalized instruction,” says a report on the survey.
Only 36 percent believed open educational resources would have a “significant impact” at community colleges. Two-thirds of respondents said faculty members weren’t aware of OERs and lacked the time to locate and evaluate them. Many also worried about the credibility of some resources.