When we consider education in the 21st century, we can’t help but think about advances in technology and the Internet, and how we, as community college leaders, can harness these innovations to help our students be successful.
Online courses in particular present a unique opportunity for community colleges, because we cater in large part to the nontraditional student. Many of our students work part or full time or balance classes with family obligations. Online education provides a ready answer, offering the flexible schedules students need — sometimes at lower costs. And the growth in online courses has reflected this need: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 27 percent of students at public two-year colleges are taking some or all of their classes online.
However, despite this growing trend and the benefits it can offer our students, online education also presents many challenges. While online classes offer flexibility to students, they also have lower rates of completion than traditional in-person classes do. A recent study from the University of California-Davis found that California community college students were 11 percent less likely to finish and pass an online course than students who took the same course in person.
Other reports from across the country support this finding: Two years ago, a study of Washington state’s community colleges found that completion rates for online courses were 6 to 10 percentage points lower than courses taught face to face. Teachers College of Columbia University found student performance decreased in online courses in Virginia: Regardless of their initial level of preparation, students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses.
Given the obvious pros of online education flexibility for the nontraditional student, as well as the demonstrated cons of lower completion rates, how can we ensure that online courses serve our students well?
A number of colleges have taken steps to increase the success rate of students taking online classes. For example, Seattle Central College’s Center for Extended Learning works closely with their students during registration to make sure that they understand the dynamic of an online course and to help them determine whether this course format is suitable for them.
Butte-Glenn Community College District and Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California partnered to create the Online Education Initiative, which provides extra technology resources and centralization aimed at improving student success rates in online education.
At AACC, we recognize the challenges online courses present, but we also encourage technological innovation. While the data shows that students in online classes do not perform as well as students in face-to-face classes, online education does provide valuable benefits in terms of access, convenience and flexibility.
Community college leaders should continue to work to improve the quality of online courses so we can ensure our students are getting the high-quality, 21st-century education they deserve in order to complete their degrees and reach success in school and in life.
Stay tuned for stories from colleges that have improved success rates in online education. In the Comments, share your college’s successes and challenges.