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Online Instruction Decreases Costs, But Also Performance for Community College Students

Jul 21, 2011

By Amit Jain and Marcie Foster

Although online courses are becoming a less expensive alternative to traditional classroom instruction, a new report finds that students enrolled in such courses are more likely to not complete the class or drop out in subsequent terms. This was true even though students enrolled in online-only courses started off better prepared academically

These findings emerged from a new study by the Community College Research Center, which followed 51,000 community and technical college students in Washington State to determine the impact of online learning on academic outcomes and enrollment. In addition to higher attrition rates, the study also found that those who took more online courses were significantly less likely to earn a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year school.

These findings raise policy concerns as states and institutions struggle to balance budgets amid rising college enrollments and as online courses become more prevalent as a less expensive alternative to face-to-face teaching. In fall 2009, more than 29 percent of higher education students took at least one online course. Despite the cost savings, online courses clearly don’t work for all students, particularly those at community colleges. 

Results were worse for students taking developmental education classes, which prepare learners with low basic skills for college-level academic work. Only 74 percent of developmental education students who learned entirely through online instruction completed their courses, compared to 85 percent of those with exclusively face-to-face instruction. These under-prepared students are the least likely to be able to weather lost tuition costs if they do not complete or need to repeat a course.

Options exist for states and institutions to use online learning strategies without sacrificing student success. CCRC researchers recommend that states and institutions help students improve their technological skills and familiarize themselves with the online learning experience prior to enrolling in an online-only course. In addition, the availability of online support services should be expanded to include weekend and evening hours, when many online students do much of their class work.

The report’s results suggest great potential for “hybrid” or “blended” courses, which combine the convenience, low cost, and technological advantage of an online environment with some level of face-to-face instruction and class interaction. These programs are on the rise, and for good reason: across the board, the difference in completion rates between face-to-face students and hybrid learners was statistically insignificant.

A successful example of the hybrid approach is LearnerWeb, a web-based instructional tool that can be customized to enhance face-to-face learning for a wide variety of courses. LearnerWeb provides students with an individualized Learning Plan to help them achieve their academic goals and offers face-to-face and online tutoring, self-paced instruction, and assessments. Originally developed for under-prepared students in adult education, the tool is now also used for students in college-level courses and to help ease the transition of basic skills students into college-level work. Minnesota uses LearnerWeb as part of its FastTRAC program to supplement in-class learning for basic skills students who are also enrolled in face-to-face occupational training courses.

Affordable and effective educational solutions do exist for cash-strapped states and institutions, but maintaining and increasing student success requires more than a transition from the classroom to the computer. If they lack the necessary supports, students in online courses may be at a disadvantage. With appropriate supports and innovative new learning approaches, completion rates can be kept up even as costs are kept down.


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