By Eric Garneau
Bad News for E-Learners?
According to a study of Washington State community college students conducted by Dr. Shanna Smith Jaggars and doctoral student Di Xu of the CCRC, students in online courses exhibit an eight percent lower chance of success than their brick-and-mortar college counterparts do. For students enrolled in remedial classes, that number drops to nine percent. While that may not seem like a huge deal, it is significant - especially when you consider that the same study finds students taking online classes are generally more prepared academically.
The study's also troubling given the way that some in the education community view online classes. Because of the flexibility they afford non-traditional students (who are now beginning to outnumber 'traditional' learners), they're often lauded as a big part of education's future. But maybe, this report hints, that self-congratulatory attitude is part of the problem. Jaggars and Xu warn that colleges need to be careful not to just throw an online class into the world and leave it be, forcing students to navigate it by themselves. Without a fair amount of support, they caution, students might easily come to feel lost and alone in online classes, sapping away their motivation to complete them.
An Inherent Disadvantage?
But despite noting 'technical difficulties, a lack of structure and isolation' as common problems in online courses, the study doesn't really consider the possibility that those courses are by their very nature hindered when it comes to holding students' attention. When you go to class meetings with a professor and other students, you're drawn into a shared perceptual experience of learning whether you want to be or not. On the Internet, there's no such guarantee. Any educational material you call up on your computer is much easier to relegate to background noise, especially when you can just open a new browser tab to check your e-mail or Facebook feed. Obviously not every student will do this, and many surely have the discipline not to, but it's still a difficulty online classes have to face.
What Schools Can Do
As far as approximating the sense of community found in traditional classrooms, though, Jaggars and Xu do offer some ideas. A July 2011 report on the study in The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the two recommend 'increased technological support for students and more extensive training in online-teaching methods for faculty.' Looking at the first part of that, we might imagine that technological support could include an easily accessible online help desk not unlike those operated by major tech companies. If students felt that they had a supporter only a mouse click away, they might be more likely to stick with their work instead of growing frustrating and giving up.
Both parts of Jaggar and Xu's recommendation involve increased institutional support, and that seems to be the key to making sure online classes remain not just an attractive option for non-traditional learners, but a successful one. Jaggar and Xu's report found that a full one-third of students in their study enrolled in courses online, and that number's likely to increase as students come to expect more flexibility from their institutions. On the bright side, an increased interest in online learning should make it easier for schools to commit to quality Internet programs, which could maybe help close that achievement gap a little.
Washington State's cooking up some major help for its community college students. Read all about its Open Course Library.