Community-college students enrolled in online courses fail and drop out more often than those whose coursework is classroom-based, according to a new study released by the Community College Research Center at the Teachers College at Columbia University.
The study, which followed the enrollment history of 51,000 community-college students in Washington State between 2004 and 2009, found an eight-percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses. Although students who enrolled in online courses tended to have stronger academic preparation and come from higher income brackets than the community-college population on the whole, researchers found that students who took online classes early in their college careers were more likely to drop out than those who took only face-to-face courses. Among students who took any courses online, those with the most Web-based credits were the least likely to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution.
"Online courses are a vital piece of the postsecondary puzzle," said Shanna S. Jaggars, co-author of the study. "There are a lot of nontraditional students who would find it very difficult to attend and complete college without the flexibility they offer, but at the same time colleges need to be careful to make sure these courses aren't just thrown together and that they are effectively serving students."
Thirty-three percent of the students observed in the study enrolled in at least one course online during the five-year period. Students in an online course had an 82-percent chance of completing the course, compared with a 90-percent chance in face-to-face courses. Among students in remedial courses, the gap was even wider—85 percent of students completed their face-to-face courses, but only 74 percent completed the same course online.
The findings come on the heels of a similar study completed in 2010 by Ms. Jaggars and Di Xu, her researcher partner, on online learning in the Virginia community-college system, which also found a significant gap in completion rates between online and face-to-face courses.
Ms. Jaggars said lower completion rates in online courses often boil down to a combination of technical difficulties, a lack of structure, and isolation. Online students often have little training in how to navigate the online interfaces of their courses and struggle to manage their coursework without the grounding of weekly class meetings.
"People assume this generation is super-technologically sophisticated, but that's not necessarily true, especially in the community-college population, which tends to be low income, disadvantaged, and includes more older students," Ms. Jaggars said.
Online courses, she said, are also a double-edged sword when it comes to time-management issues. On the one hand, students can complete coursework around their own work and family lives. On the other, online courses require students to be more proactive about finding time to do assignments and make it easier for struggling students to fall behind.
The report suggests several ways to improve online courses, including increased technological support for students and more extensive training in online-teaching methods for faculty. The research was backed by the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.