Online Learning May Not Help Those Who Need Help Most

A study by Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University finds that students perform worse in online courses than they do in traditional ones. This is one of the first comprehensive research efforts aimed at figuring out how such courses compare to the ones taught in the traditional classroom environment and the results could serve as a check on the growing popularity of online schooling at the college level.

The authors looked at the results of more than 40,000 students and their results in nearly 500,000 courses and found that those enrolled in online courses were more likely to drop out or fail compared to their peers taking classes face-to-face with the instructor. What is most worrying is the fact that likelihood of failure wasn’t consistent across all groups. Males, Black students, younger kids and those who already had lower grade-point-average had the widest gap between their performance in online courses and those taught in a typical classroom.

The last finding is a concern because these are broadly the exact demographic groups that the expansion of online learning was supposed to help most.

In tackling the subject, the authors also attempted to understand why up till now, the results of research into online education produced such varied results.

One potential cause for the wide variation in results across studies may lie in the different student populations and course contexts examined in each study. Some populations of students—for example, those with more extensive exposure to technology or those who have been taught skills in terms of time-management and self-directed learning—may adapt more readily to online learning than others . In addition, some academic subject areas may lend themselves to high quality online learning experiences more readily than others and thus may support students more effectively in their efforts to adapt.

The adoption of online education has been – in part – bolstered because it was viewed as a way to deliver education to demographic groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education. However, it was exactly those students whose gap in performance between online courses and traditional ones was widest. Which means that the measure that was supposed to battle this kind of academic inequity could – in theory – actually exacerbate it.

The study also found that online course performance also fluctuated by subject. Specifically, the difference in performance in all subgroups was greater in humanities, like English and Social Studies. The authors speculate that these kinds of courses rely on more peer support which is not as present in an online environment.

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