Data Shows Online Courses Less Effective at Community Colleges


A recent study from UC Davis suggests that online courses offered at community colleges are not as effective as those offered in a traditional, face-to-face setting.

Researchers discovered that students at community colleges across California were 11% less likely to complete a course taken online than they were the same course taken in a traditional classroom setting.  The outcomes, which appear in the still unpublished paper titled “Online Course-taking and Student Outcomes in California Community Colleges,” were presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in Chicago this April.

“In every subject, students are doing better face-to-face,” said Cassandra Hart, one of the paper’s authors. “Other studies have found the same thing. There’s a strong body of evidence building up that students are not doing quite as well in online courses, at least as the courses are being designed now in the community college sector.”

Online education is responsible for educating 45% of undergraduates nationwide.  However, despite the ability for students to log in at their convenience and work at their own pace, the medium has come under fire over low graduation rates.

Community colleges across the country have increased their online course offerings at a tremendous rate over the last decade.  Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that over 27% of community college students participated in online courses in 2012.  Most of these were students who were also taking traditional courses in a classroom setting, not specifically enrolled in an online course.

However, the recent findings would suggest that a number of these students are unable to manage their time effectively in order to complete all the lectures and coursework within one semester.  Several earlier studies looking at the results of students who participated in online courses found similar results.

Meanwhile, researchers are finding very different results at four-year colleges, where no real difference was found between students who take traditional face-to-face courses and those who take online courses.  However, most of these studies have taken place at selective colleges with much more academically-minded students who also may be more self-motivated.  The studies looked at specific content areas, such as economics or introductory statistics, rather than general education courses.

Researchers for the UC Davis study looked at all online courses taken at 112 public community colleges within California.  Data was used from a four-year time span, between 2008 and 2012, to compare student outcomes for courses that offered both an online and traditional classroom setting, writes Jenny Ung for USA Today.

Business and information technology courses were found to be the most popular online options.  Despite finding that those who decided to take the online course were the stronger students on average, they were also less likely to complete the course, or to finish it with a grade of A or B, than those who took the same course in a traditional setting.

Despite these results, a recent study on distance learning shows that online enrollment is continuing to increase.

“We now have the technology to create online social and collaborative environments, blending pedagogy and technology,” Michael Hill, a Ph.D. student and an author of the study, said. “If people’s lives can revolve around Facebook and Twitter, it stands to reason we can translate that into a learning environment. Is it the same as a traditional classroom? No. But let’s recognize that, conduct more research to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each, and use that knowledge to build better learning environments.”