No-one left behind
Image: Guideposts

This is the third post in a series on rethinking the purpose of online learning. In the first post, I discussed Ontario’s strategy of making it mandatory to take four high school courses/credits online. In the second, I examined Kevin Carey’s claim that online learning could radically reduce the cost of higher education (at least in the USA).

In this post, I want to look at which students do best or worse in online learning, and whether we could be doing a better job supporting ‘weak’ or struggling students.

The Washington State Community College study

This was prompted by my discovery of this 2011 study on enrollment patterns and academic outcomes in online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses among students who enrolled in Washington State community and technical colleges between 2004 and 2009. 

Xu, D. and Jaggars, S.S. (2011) Online and Hybrid Course Enrollment and Performance in Washington State Community and Technical Colleges New York: Columbia University’s Community College Research Centre

There are in fact very few studies of online completion rates, mainly because few jurisdictions require their institutions to report such data, and it’s not something most colleges will provide willingly. Nevertheless, this study is similar to one done in Ontario in 2011, and fits with my experience: students do as well in hybrid or blended courses as students in face-to-face classes, but fully online students do a little worse.

However, it is important to look at the actual differences. In the Washington State study, overall completion rates in one year were 89% for all students but 83% for fully online students, a difference of 6%. Also, online course completion rates seemed to improve for students who had reached their fifth year of enrollment. This suggests that the gap in online course completion narrows significantly as students gain more experience with online courses. It also suggests that students are more likely to fail if they take online courses in their first year at college.

The Washington online completion rates were slightly higher than for those in colleges in Ontario in 2011. The online completion rate in Ontario colleges was 76%, and in universities, 85%.

There were also strong demographic differences between students who enrolled in online courses and those who took only face-to-face courses. In particular, they tended to be female, over 25, more likely to be eligible for financial aid, and worked more hours. They also tended to be ethnically white.

Image: Ivy College

OK but could do better

Although completion rates are slightly lower for online courses, this is hardly surprising, given the student demographics, with online students working longer hours, being female, and older. Basically, they have less time for study. 

More surprising perhaps is that at least three quarters or more of online students do actually succeed in their courses. These are also students who may not have been able to study at all without the flexibility of online learning.

I am assuming most online courses apply universal design principles to help those physically handicapped. But could we do better to help those who are at risk of not completing because of their personal circumstances? In particular, could we:

  • do more to help such students manage their more limited study time better? For instance, I am concerned that institutions and instructors are moving more towards synchronous delivery and away from asynchronous learning. This will have a much larger negative effect on online students with limited times for study;
  • reduce the reading load by being more selective in the materials that students have to cover?
  • use learning analytics to help identify students at risk, to allow instructors to give specific attention to their needs?
  • provide more optional or better student guides on how to manage online learning?
  • provide better pacing of work over a semester through continuous assessment, rather than a single end-of-term exam?
  • gradually introduce students to online learning through blended courses in the first year before offering fully online courses later in the program?
  • are we doing enough in our design of courses to accommodate to cultural differences in the way students learn (especially in Canada for aboriginal students and for immigrants)?
  • could we allow students studying fully online more time to complete a program?
  • could we make better use of other students to help those who are struggling?

In other words we need better strategies to help students who are not necessarily academically weak, but are facing difficult circumstances at home or work. Good design helps everyone; what more though could we do for those particularly at risk?

Could we make one purpose of online learning to help those who would otherwise fail in their studies, instead of making it more difficult for them? In other words, no online learner left behind.

Up next

I intended to do just three posts but I still have more ground to cover, in particular:

  • using online learning to develop 21st century skills
  • prioritising the different purposes

I hope to cover both of these topics in the next post. 



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