Why Are So Many Students Still Failing Online?

Brian Taylor

May 22, 2011

Online learning has become the third rail in American higher-education politics: Step on it and you're toast.

That's especially true at community colleges, where many leaders have embraced online courses with an almost religious fervor. And we all know why. It's not because anyone is seriously arguing that online classes are consistently better than the face-to-face versions. And it's not even necessarily because students are clamoring for them (although they're clearly popular in certain segments of the population, such as stay-at-home parents, people with full-time jobs, and deployed members of the armed forces). It's because colleges can produce online courses much more cheaply while charging roughly the same tuition.

In other words, at many community colleges, online classes constitute the proverbial cash cow. And if you say anything about them—other than that we should offer more and more, forever and ever, virtual worlds without end, amen—then you will be branded as a heretic, ridiculed as a neo-Luddite, and shunned.

At least it sometimes seems that way. But isn't it time that we had an honest national conversation about online learning? With countless studies showing success rates in online courses of only 50 per cent—as opposed to 70-to-75 percent for comparable face-to-face classes— isn't it time we asked ourselves some serious questions? Such as: Should every course be taught online? And should we allow every student—or any student who wishes to—to take online courses?

I sometimes joke with my first-year students, many of whom are seeking admission to our community college's top-flight nursing program, that we used to offer an anatomy lab online until we started receiving complaints from people whose cats were missing. No doubt that joke is in poor taste, but it illustrates a point that seems to me self-evident: We can't teach everything online, nor should we try.

To all of you out there shaking your heads at my ignorance, can we perhaps find common ground? Can we agree that none of us would want to be operated on by surgeons who received all of their medical training online? If so, then perhaps we can agree that online learning has its limitations. The only debate is over where those limits lie.

That debate should be reserved for faculty members and academic administrators. The question is not whether online courses are more cost efficient (we already know that they are) or whether students like them. The only important question to ask about how particular courses and programs should be taught is, What is in the best interests of students academically?

I'll be the first to acknowledge that I don't always know the answer, and to admit that I've been wrong in the past. A few years ago, when we attempted to place an entire associate degree online, my college found itself struggling with a couple of courses in particular. One was our public-speaking course, which happened to be housed in the department that I chaired at the time.

Conventional wisdom back then dictated that you couldn't really teach a speech course online. To whom would the students give their speeches? How would they collectively become engaged as audiences or learn to analyze the speeches of others, as they do in a traditional classroom? I sided with the establishment. Speech, I decided, was just one of those courses that students would have to come to campus to take.

That is, until one of the faculty members in my department took it upon herself to solve the problem, through a combination of strategies that required students to videotape themselves, give speeches in front of church, school, or civic organizations, and observe and evaluate similar speeches by others. Her online public-speaking course became the template not just for our college but for the entire state system.

I still don't think an online speech course is quite as good as the face-to-face kind. It seems to me that there are distinct advantages to being in the same room with the professor and other students; that there are dynamics and experiences associated with the brick-and-mortar classroom that can't quite be duplicated via the Internet. But an online speech course can be almost as good. Done well, it could certainly provide students with the necessary knowledge, and teach them the requisite skills.

I think that's where we are with most online courses: They're not quite as good as face-to-face, but they're close enough. Are some of them just as good? No doubt. Might some be even better? Possibly. But a few, at least, should probably not be taught at all—"Advanced Brain Surgery" would be high on my list—and most are merely good enough.

For students who aren't able to attend college in the traditional way, "good enough" can be a godsend. But that doesn't mean that all students, or any student who wants to, should take online courses. Our collective failure to recognize that fundamental reality is primarily responsible for the high failure rates we see in online courses.

Years ago, when I was at another institution, and the online revolution was just gathering momentum, we were already noting that our online offerings had success rates that were much lower than in face-to-face sections. I recommended in a meeting of department heads that we consider instituting some sort of front-door controls. After all, we routinely test entering students to determine whether they're prepared for college-level math and writing courses; why not test them to see if they can handle online courses?

My suggestion was met with stony silence. Then the administrator running the meeting let me know, in no uncertain terms, that the college would never go for that idea, because it would limit online enrollment at a time when growth was needed for budget reasons.

In other words, "We don't care what happens to students at the end of the class. We just need them to sign up and stay on the roster long enough to count as enrolled." I never broached the topic again, nor to my knowledge did anyone else at that college. I imagine that many other professors made the same suggestion at other colleges, where it was similarly shot down.

But it's time to talk about it now. Online enrollments across the country are strong and growing, while success rates stay about the same: abysmal. I attended a session at the "Innovations 2011" conference a couple of months ago, held in San Diego by the League for Innovation in the Community College, where I learned that some colleges were beginning to experiment with the kinds of controls I recommended. Software companies now market products designed to determine, up front, whether students can handle the workload, the pedagogical approach (heavy on reading), and the technical demands of the online environment, and some of those products have shown promise. That sort of approach just makes a world of sense.

Unfortunately, many institutions still shy away from anything like that, because they're afraid of losing enrollment. Some are even complicit in perpetuating the notions that any student can succeed in online courses and that as many as possible should be encouraged to try. (I'm sure we've all seen multiple variations on the "Go to college in your pj's" marketing campaign.)

I'd like us to be more honest with students. Generally speaking, online courses are harder than face-to-face ones, not easier. Online courses require a tremendous amount of self-discipline and no small amount of academic ability and technical competence. They're probably not for everyone, and I think we need to acknowledge as much to students and to ourselves.

No one doubts that within a decade, if not sooner, most courses will have an online component. I don't have a problem with that. For the past couple of years, I've gradually been putting more and more of my course materials online. I agree with those who think that hybrid courses, incorporating face-to-face and electronic elements, are the future. Some concepts can be conveyed quite well online, while others really need to be taught in a traditional classroom.

In the meantime, though, we need to think long and hard about which courses should be taught fully online, and which students belong in online courses. If students and their prospective employers ever begin to suspect that, in our rush to offer everything online, we have oversold and underdelivered, then it's going to be too late for us to have that discussion. Politicians will have it for us.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at and writes monthly for the community-college column of The Chronicle. His book, "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges," has just been published by the American Association of Community Colleges and the Community College Press.