Is Online Learning Better? Maybe Not—At Least, Not at First
Via the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, a new study confirms some earlier findings about the efficacy of online learning in two-year colleges. The study, conduced by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, looked at more than 50,000 students in Washington state’s community or technical college system. What they found was that students who load up on online classes, especially early in their higher education careers, are less likely to finish their degrees. This is worrisome, especially because, as CCRC notes in its report, the number of students taking online courses is only increasing.
The report [PDF] concludes that “students who took at least one online course in the first fall term were more likely to withdraw entirely from their college career in the subsequent term than were those who took only face-to-face courses, a pattern that appears consistent regardless of developmental status.”
Students who took at least one online course faced a dropout rate of 34 percent, while students who took only face-to-face classes faced a dropout rate of 26 percent. The study also found that two-year students who took more online courses were less likely to transfer to a four-year institution. Students who took 8 percent of their classes online had a 54 percent chance of transferring; when that percentage of online classes jumped to 33 percent, the transfer rate dropped to 50 percent.
The study also noted that some students were more likely to take online courses than others:
Results indicate that in terms of both the first quarter and the first year, online courses were significantly more popular among females, English-fluent students, transfer students, students who were dual enrolled before entering college, those who applied and were eligible for financial aid, who never enrolled in remedial education, and who were more than 25 years old at college entry. In terms of ethnicity, Asian, African American, and Hispanic students were significantly less likely to take an online course both in the first quarter and first year than were White students, while American Indians and Pacific Islanders were less likely to take an online course only in the first year. In terms of socioeconomic status, highest-quintile SES students were significantly more likely to take an online course in the first year than were lowest-quintile SES students.
In terms of women, it seems likely women, especially parents, might find online courses to be more flexible to their work and child care schedules. Interestingly, white students seemed far more likely to take online courses than their non-white peers. I can only guess at this difference.
Overall, what this study points to is that even as many colleges, both for-profit and nonprofit, are boasting online courses that can give students increased flexibility, the outcomes aren’t matching up with face-to-face courses, especially during those students’ first semesters.