An article was published on May 22 in USA Today, was titled Study: Online community college courses found to be ineffective. This title does not reflect the results of the study, and is terribly misleading. The study referenced in the article did not conclude that online courses are ineffective, but more aptly that performance was marginally weaker in online courses when compared to similar face to face classes. Importantly, according to the conclusion of the researchers, the results might not be generalizable, because other online programs could have more developed online course systems, and/or might have courses better suited to online learning. The research study was authored by Cassandra M. D. Hart, Elizabeth Friedmann and Michael Hill of the University of California – Davis.
Online learning is a wonderful opportunity for students to participate in learning when separated by time and geography. The roots of distance education can be traced back 150 years or more, where most people learned through correspondence courses. Today, learners enjoy the benefits of distance learning using online tools via the internet. Very importantly, it has been said over and over that distance education is not for everyone, and not all courses translate well into distance learning delivery.
The article by Jenny Ung, and the referenced research study, was basically a rehash of what is already well known about distance education. One cannot blame the method of delivery if the course is not designed well, not delivered appropriately, and taken by students that do not understand beforehand how distance education is different than face to face. Preparing students for distance education is not some arcane undertaking. Read an article Preparing Students for Distance Education, published in Distance Learning journal from the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA).
The research study mentions a misconception by students that learning online is easy, where Ung stated “Not only do students gravitate toward online classes because of their flexibility, but also because they’re perceived to be easier.” Indeed this is common misconception that requires schools to prepare students for distance education. The need to dispel myths, and raise student awareness about traits of successful online learners, is the responsibility of the college. Too many schools shuffle students into online courses without adequate prior preparation.
Part of preparation for learning at a distance is to fully understand the importance of time management. The nature of distance learning is flexibility, but there are due dates for assignments, and often students have not done the work because of the flexible nature inherent to time management. The procrastination factor is perhaps the most important danger to avoid in distance learning. This can be managed through the narrowing of ‘transactional distance’. Transactional distance is the separation of student and instructor by time and geography. The internet as a medium enables the narrowing of transactional distance through frequent communication. Communication between students’ and the instructor must be timely and consistent, not a once in a while check in. Instructors should be communicating with students individually and as a group as frequently as daily and always immediately when a student has a question. Many schools require same day response, and no more than 24 hours to answer a student question.
It is a lot of work for instructors to teach effectively using online course delivery. The misconception about online learning being easy is not just a misconception of students, but also faculty. Further, the design of a course is markedly different for online vs. face to face. Instructors that simply convert lecture materials to online will likely see a high dropout rate and high failure rate.
The results of the research study showed that the online cohorts had a lower completion rate than did face to face counterparts – six points lower, which is not a very big difference. Also, fewer students passed a course when compared to face to face, about 5 percentage points. The rate of A/B grades was about the same.
These results are not alarming or surprising, and as one of the researchers stated “…the UC Davis study is not a referendum against online education.” This research study simply adds to an existing the body of knowledge, most of which has been well established in other research.
To state that online course are ineffective, is a distortion. Many of the courses likely did not prepare students beforehand for distance learning, design courses using effective distance learning principles, or adequately train faculty to become effective distance educators. The findings are actually encouraging because albeit a gap between online and face to face, the gap was not tremendous.
Perhaps California community colleges will become more adept at employing the principles of effective distance education, and realize equivalent results in the near future for online and face to face classes. It has been said that distance education can be equivalent to face to face. It seems this an attainable goal for the California community colleges given the narrow gap between online and face to face courses.