Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Online classes are great, except for the part about students learning stuff

Disclaimer: I realize that in a sparsely-populated area, online education can be the only option a student has. I also realize that some of my fellow Miserians teach online, and are putting a great deal of effort into making the online experience as valuable as possible for their students. Any ire and snark are properly directed toward those administrators, trustees, and anecdote-besotted pundits  who seem convinced that online education is either a magical money multiplier, or simply a trend not to be missed out on

Inside Higher Ed reports a study out of California that compared students enrolled in online classes and their face to face equivalents.
The researchers found online students lagging behind face-to-face students in three critical areas:
  • Completing courses (regardless of grade).
  • Completing courses with passing grades.
  • Completing courses with grades of A or B.
The results were the same across subject matters, courses of different types and different groups of students. Larger gaps were found in some areas, such as summer courses and courses taken by relatively small numbers of online students. But no patterns could be found where students online performed better than those in face-to-face courses.
Turns out we already knew this. The Community College Research Center has been studying online education for a while, with similar results. Students who take online courses are more likely to withdraw from or fail those courses, and less likely to attain a degree. Developmental students do particularly poorly.

But who (among those whose opinions seem to matter) doesn't love the idea of infinitely-expandable classrooms?



  1. I teach online on a regular basis, don't mind doing so, and think I'm reasonably successful at it, but I'm not surprised by any of the above. Basically, the more experienced/prepared, mature, and self-disciplined the student is, the better online education works. It's an excellent medium (especially when combined with infrequent but intense face to face sessions) for advanced, specialized programs of various sorts (grad degrees and certificates of various sorts, especially those with potentially small and scattered audiences, perhaps degree completion for mature undergrads, maybe even some advanced/specialized classes for traditional undergrads that can't be offered at every school). It's a terrible medium for reaching people who haven't learned how to learn, or who are hesitant or nervous about their ability to succeed in higher ed, or who have quit or flunked out before due to problems with time management or other life skills, or (perhaps most important, given how online ed is often marketed) who have extremely busy schedules. Students who sign up for on-campus classes self-select for at least one trait: they believe they'll have time to travel to campus one or more times a week, and sit through a class. That alone accounts for some of the disparities noted above, I'm pretty sure. The tendency for "out of sight out of mind" to apply to schoolwork is another explanation, as is lack of preparation for college-level work.

    I'm not sure online ed has any place in community college programs aimed primarily at preparing for transfer/receiving the AA degree, and I suspect there are very few cases in which it would be appropriate for developmental ed (maybe with a few highly motivated/discipline populations -- soldiers, perhaps?).

    Most important from the administrators' point of view: there simply isn't a significant population out there that wants to and can finish a degree, can pay their own way (or truly afford a loan), and can't access a traditional program when they're ready to. Sure, there are scattered individuals here and there, and there should be a few high-quality online programs available nationwide (maybe even a small one in each state) to serve that population, but this simply isn't a vast, lucrative, untapped market (at least not unless you're willing to emulate the worst for-profits, and persuade people to borrow money to pursue degrees they're unlikely to finish).

    1. What she said.

      But ASU just announced a plan to develop a dozen intro-level MOOCs (which you can take for credit for $45 + $200/credit hour) to "replace freshman year"...

    2. Freshman year is the one that most needs to be done in meatspace. It is not merely Grade 13.

    3. As an Ontario kid, I actually did Grade 13, and I resemble that remark!

      I also remember visiting the campus of Big City U (it was Trawna) during Grade 13, when I was deciding where to go to university. This was back in the day pre-internet. The tour guide proudly explained their new initiative to structure the big first year Intro to Hamsters course as a series of video modules instead of a big lecture. The idea was that you would go to the library each week, check out the video, watch it, and do an assignment. They said this like it was a good thing ("work to your own schedule!" etc. Sound familiar?).

      I chose another university. A few years later they scrapped it and went back to big lectures. Replace library videotapes with internet streaming and it's deja vu all over again. It's like stock market bubbles - "This time it'll be different!"

      And Frankie, that graphic says it all!

    4. I've been preaching from the same gospel. Books didn't eliminate big lectures, nor did videotapes. What is an online course but text and pictures (still and moving) perhaps combined with a Usenet-like discussion board? Oh, that's right: this unique synthesis of resources is unlike anything that came before, so it will be better this time! Except that available research shows that it's not better. Yeah, but we'll do it better than those other places do, so it will be different!

  2. "I'm not sure online ed has any place in community college programs aimed primarily at preparing for transfer/receiving the AA degree."

    I'm there, I've taught online, and I agree. Our population is not ready in terms of academic skills or the meta-skills like awareness that one doesn't understand something and needs help. In about 10 semesters of a teaching an online class that was vetted for best practices, I had about 5 students who were up to the tasks and seemed to learn material equivalent to my on-campus sections of the same class.

  3. It is so easy to design a shitty online class. The best online classes have a lot of interaction, frequent deadlines, asychronous lessons, and some method of hitting the students who fall behind (either a strong student rep program or a physical person to check progress and speak to the student so there are consequences).

    But when it is done well, it is golden.