Now that a landmark study conducted by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University has confirmed that students at two-year campuses perform worse in online courses than in the face-to-face version, perhaps we can move on the important question: What can we do about that?
Many of the suggestions I’ve read -- from those not still in denial -- have to do with improving the quality of online teaching, offering institutional support for online students, and so forth. I’m not sure that’s the right approach, because my impression is that most institutions are already doing those things. A decade ago, when we first began noticing lower success rates in online sections, our initial response was to work at improving the courses and the way we offer them. By and large, we succeeded.
As a result, today’s online campus is a far cry from the early days of distance education, when just about any faculty member could teach online and more than a few went that route just to avoid driving to campus five days a week. Online instructors these days tend to be both highly trained and highly committed. Institutions themselves have come a long way, too -- offering a full range of support services for online students and faculty members unheard of just a few years ago.
That’s why attempts to increase student success by improving the way we “do” online are doomed to fall short. The answer, I believe, lies not in improving our courses but in improving our students.
In my May column for The Chronicle, “Why Are So Many Students Still Failing Online?,” I suggested that we institute what I called “front-door controls” to ensure that student entering our online courses are prepared for them and equipped to succeed. I’d like to expand on that idea briefly here.
Every college that offers online courses should require students to pass an online orientation. I’m envisioning a one-credit course, taken online, that covers the technical requirements of online classes, familiarizes students with the pedagogical approaches they can expect, addresses candidly the time commitment and degree of responsibility and motivation required, and essentially teaches students how to take a course online.
I understand the main objection to that idea, which is that it could negatively affect enrollment at a time when many institutions need to attract more students for financial reasons. That might be true, but I’ve also been reading lately that, in many states, future state dollars may ultimately be tied to student success and not just to headcounts. In that case, allowing enrollment to decline just a bit while at the same time increasing success rates would be a pretty good trade-off.
I also understand that many institutions are already doing something much like what I’ve described, and that many of you are more qualified than I to comment on the details. I’d be very interested to hear what you have to say.