Kay Steiger

Is Online Learning Better? Maybe Not—At Least, Not at First

with 6 comments

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.

Written by kaysteiger

July 19, 2011 at 4:53 PM

Posted in higher education

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6 Responses

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  1. Thank you for the informative article. Note that correlation does not always equal causation.

    As you noted, the types of students who take more online courses tend to differ from those who take very few. It may be that the factors which make some students more apt to take an online course instead of a face to face course also make them more likely not to complete their degrees. For example, women and students over age 25 may be more likely to take online courses because they have other demands on their time like child care or work. It may be that these other demands also make them less likely to complete their degrees. Someone working may need the income from work, or may conclude that his/her career will advance faster by gaining experience working full time or overtime as opposed to working less so they can complete the degree.

    I think this situation is someone analogous to comparing traditional college programs with part-time, commuter, or “nigh-school” programs designed to reach non-traditional students. It may be that online courses are less effective, or it may be that the cost advantage and scheduling flexibility they allow simply enable more non-traditional students to give them a try. From this data, we simply don’t know the extent to which each conclusion applies.

    Should You Be A Lawyer?

    July 23, 2011 at 4:28 PM

  2. […] some of the studies that have been done on distance learning haven’t been so rosy. Students who rely heavily on online courses are more likely to drop out. And, as one attendee from […]

  3. […] has good thoughts: Furthermore, some of the studies that have been done on distance learning haven’t been so rosy. Students who rely heavily on online courses are more likely to drop out. And, as one attendee from […]

  4. […] College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which, as a July 19 post on KaySteiger.com reports, “looked at more than 50,000 students in Washington state’s community or technical college […]

  5. […] remain somewhat skeptical of the efficacy of online-only programs given some previous research that shows students—especially freshman—are more likely to drop out if they take online-only […]

  6. […] 2. Of course, the above study focuses on ideal conditions. In the real world, the average student in an online course is busier, less prepared, and less dedicated than the average “traditional” student. See this article. […]


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