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An analysis of more than 10,000 students at the University of California, Irvine, found that online courses helped students finish their bachelor’s degrees faster than in person classes, but their grades were lower. Credit: Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

My friend’s son was wrestling with a modern college dilemma: Would it be better to take a prerequisite course online or attend the lectures in-person? His school had resumed in-person learning during the pandemic and so he had the option to take either version. An online course would be convenient; he could click through the lessons at his leisure. But would it be wiser for the night owl to wake up early to be taught by a human? Large lecture hall courses can be mind-numbingly dull, especially when the professor isn’t entertaining. It felt like a close call.

He chose to take the class online, but a recent body of research based on the experience of more than 10,000 students at the University of California, Irvine, might have informed his decision. Researchers found that online courses helped students finish their bachelor’s degrees faster, but students tended to get lower grades in their online classes — a sign that they’re learning less than they would have in a traditional class.  

For example, a 1 percent increase in the proportion of lower division college courses (100 and 200 level courses) taken online during the first year of college was associated with shaving off 1.4 months of the time it took a student to finish a bachelor’s degree. However, students’ grades were one tenth of a letter grade lower in the online classes than in the same face-to-face classes. A student might have earned a 3.4 online when they would have probably gotten a 3.5 in person. Researchers compared similar students with similar academic backgrounds to estimate the grade “penalty” that students suffered for opting to learn online. 

Deciding between the two modes may depend on whether you care more about finishing or mastering the material.  It’s a decision that’s likely to come up more frequently for college students as institutions expand their online course offerings. As recently as five years ago, more than 30 percent of undergraduate students took an online course. 

The experience of UC Irvine students suggests a tension between the dual purposes of higher education — to confer diplomas and to impart knowledge. Colleges have been rightly criticized for poor graduation rates. Only 41 percent of undergraduates succeeded in completing a four-year degree in four years, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. But, as an outside observer, I find it upsetting that a potential solution to improving graduation rates is to sacrifice learning.

Related: Five studies find online courses are not working well at community colleges

This data analysis at a more selective four-year university echoes earlier research that scholars have conducted at for-profit and community colleges. In more than a half dozen studies, researchers have found that students did far worse in online courses than they did in person. Some studies, like this one at Irvine, have found that students are more likely to graduate if they take online courses. Others, such as a 2017 study at a large for-profit school, have found that online course takers are more likely to fail and drop out of college

Students often do worse because online courses require more planning and discipline, what educators call “self regulation,” explained Christian Fischer, an assistant professor of education at the University of Tübingen in Germany and lead author of these California studies, published in the journals of The Internet and Higher Education in April 2020 and Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis in November 2021. The courses in this study, offered at Irvine from 2009 to 2016, were typically “asynchronous” and did not include scheduled Zoom sessions where students and instructors could interact in real time. Without a scheduled lecture to attend, it can be tempting to procrastinate work.  Students who have the discipline to spread online work throughout the week typically do much better than those who cram in the video lectures at the 11th hour.

It may be the case that UC Irvine students, who arrive at college with strong high school grades and high SAT scores, may be more disciplined than their less prepared peers at community and for-profit colleges. And that could explain why researchers found a smaller “penalty” for taking an online course at UC Irvine than at less selective institutions.

Meanwhile, the flexibility of online courses helps students juggle work schedules and family responsibilities with school. Online classes often have larger enrollments, allowing more students to take a popular prerequisite class that they might otherwise be shut out of. That can help students fit in a requirement early in their college careers so that they can quickly progress to more advanced courses. 

“Finding ways to help students graduate more efficiently can really benefit students,” said Fischer. “College completion is really important for their whole life trajectory, employment and mental health. Yes, students are doing slightly worse in the online courses compared to the face-to-face classes, but it’s a really small difference.”

Related: The online paradox at community colleges

Fischer believes that colleges learned a lot about how to improve online learning during the pandemic.

“I would be really curious to see a study of online education 20 years from now. Maybe it will be even better than face to face,” said Fischer.

I’d settle for not worse.

This story about online college classes was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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