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Here’s an unusual case where scholarly research is producing a clear conclusion: online instruction at community colleges isn’t working. Yet policymakers are continuing to fund programs to expand online courses at these schools, which primarily serve low-income minority students, and community college administrators are planning to offer more and more of them.

The latest salvo comes from researchers at the University of California-Davis, who found that community college students throughout California were 11 percent less likely to finish and pass a course if they opted to take the online version instead of the traditional face-to-face version of the same class. The still-unpublished paper, entitled “Online Course-taking and Student Outcomes in California Community Colleges,” was presented on April 18, 2015, at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in Chicago.

“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.”

Example of an online course at a community college

Source: Youtube video describing a basic computer skill course at Columbia Gorge Community College, Oregon.

Whether online instruction is effective in community colleges is an important question.  The sector educates 45 percent of the nation’s undergraduates and is under fire for low graduation rates. At first blush, it would seem that online courses, where students can log in at their convenience and complete assignments at their own pace, might be an ideal solution for community college students, many of whom are older and juggling jobs and parenting.  Not surprisingly, community colleges have rapidly expanded their online course offerings in the past decade. More than 27 percent of students at public two-year colleges were taking some or all of their classes online in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, many more than at four-year colleges. For the most part, these are ordinary students taking some courses online at a bricks-and-mortar school, not students in fully-online degree programs.

Follow up story: The online paradox at community colleges

Despite the flexibility, it appears that many students find it hard to manage their time to complete the lectures and coursework throughout an entire semester.  Prior studies in Virginia and Washington state, conducted by scholars at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2011 and 2013, found worse outcomes for community college students who take courses online. And two earlier studies, in 2012 and 2014, found the same result as in the recent California study.

These are very different results from what researchers are finding for students at four-year colleges. Rigorous studies at four-year colleges have tended to find no difference in student performance between traditional face-to-face lecture courses and online courses. In other words, students do about the same regardless of the course format. But most of these studies have taken place at selective colleges, where students are much stronger academically, and perhaps more self-motivated, than the typical community college student. And these studies have looked at limited subject areas, such as introductory statistics or economics.

The new UC-Davis community college study looks at the entire universe of online courses, from psychology to engineering, offered at 112 public community colleges throughout California. The researchers examined student course-taking records over four years, from 2008-09 through 2011-12, and compared student outcomes for those classes in which students had the choice between taking the exact same course online or in person.

The researchers found that business and information technology classes were the most popular online classes. (To my surprise, students were far more likely to opt to take math in the classroom with a professor.) In every subject, those selecting the online version of a class tended to be the stronger students. Nonetheless, those who took the online version were less likely to complete a course, pass it or get an A or B grade than students with a similar academic and financial background who took the traditional class.

To be sure, the design and production of online community college courses are decentralized and primitive. Professors largely make their own, from soup to nuts, and most don’t have technical or video training. The result is often a powerpoint slide presentation with a voiceover, according to Shanna Jaggars, who was a co-author of both the Virginia and Washington studies and is the assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Online students might see a brief video clip of the professor each week, mentioning upcoming topics, but rarely is an entire lecture videotaped. Sometimes, a professor will decide to use elements from a prepackaged online curriculum, such as Pearson’s MyMathLab, but Jaggars said she hasn’t seen community colleges using an entire course from an outside vendor. Students typically move through the same syllabus as the face-to-face students and complete the same assignments. Of course, students can email questions to the professor or post them on an online bulletin board, but they can’t ask questions in the middle of a powerpoint presentation and receive an answer in real time.

Nonetheless, community college administrators continue to expand this sort of online instruction. An Inside Higher Ed survey, published April 17, 2015, reported that “50 percent of two-year-college presidents agreed that more courses could be moved online without adversely affecting students at their institutions.” The state of California is giving grants to the state’s community college system to coordinate online course delivery across campuses.

Jaggars says that community college leaders aren’t blind to research evidence. Many know from their own student records that the students aren’t faring well. But the community college sector is suffering declines, and offering online classes is a huge selling point to prospective students. “They need enrollments and this is one way to pull enrollments up,” said Jaggars.

This article also appeared here

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