Many students stay away from online courses in subjects they deem especially difficult or interesting, according to a study released this month by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The finding comes just as many highly selective colleges are embracing online learning and as massive open online courses are gaining popularity and standing.

A report on the study, “Choosing Between Online and Face-to-Face Courses: Community College Student Voices,” focuses on why students opt to take some courses online but others face to face. “Because they serve a lot of students who work and have kids, community colleges feel they need to offer more and more online courses to meet their demands,” said Shanna Smith Jaggars, the report’s author and the center’s assistant director. “But we looked at, What is the extent of that demand?”

The research, financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, uses data collected in interviews with 46 students at two unidentified community colleges in the United States.

The respondents were most likely to take online courses on topics they felt more comfortable “teaching themselves.” When a student considered a subject area “difficult"—many cited mathematics and science courses as examples—they were more likely to want a traditional brick-and-mortar setting because, the report says, “they needed the immediate question-and-answer context of a face-to-face course.”

In-person formats were also more popular for courses in a student’s major or in discussion-based areas where interactions with instructors or other peers were seen as important.


A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education actually found that students in online courses fared better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference had to do with online students’ ability to work at their own pace and to review course content, said Christine Mullins, executive director of the Instructional Technology Council.

She also said that when online courses are done right, they can provide many opportunities for peer interaction. “It’s amazing what students can do,” she said. “They can e-mail questions, chat with classmates, do online tutorials.”

Still, the research center’s paper concludes that “most students felt they did not learn the course material as well when they took it online.”

Much research remains to be done on the best structure for online courses, Ms. Jaggars said. For the time being, “offering a few online sections is great,” she said, because it gives students with jobs and children the scheduling flexibility they need. “But offering all sections of a course online? I don’t think that’s a good idea.”