A recent study conducted by Cassandra Hart, an assistant professor in the UC Davis School of Education, and education doctoral students Michael Hill and Elizabeth Friedmann found that student grades and completion rates of community college students are lower when they take online courses as opposed to face-to-face classes.
The researchers studied students who entered community colleges in California in the 2008-09 school year—which totaled to over 2.3 million students. They followed these students through the 2011-12 school year, comparing students from the same college taking classes available in both online and in-person formats.
Hill, who is in his fifth year of teaching students online, said that one issue with online classes is the delayed reaction time between professors and students. Hill said that teaching a class face-to-face allows teachers to quickly alter the way they explain a concept if needed, such as explaining a concept in a different way if students in the classroom look confused. However, he said that, in an online classroom, it takes much more time for teachers to receive this feedback from students and thus adapt their teaching styles.
As UC Davis and other colleges have moved towards offering more online classes for students, this research study shows the potential disadvantages of doing so.
“The findings from the community college data have serious implications for other systems, including the UC,” Friedmann said. “The UC’s Online Pilot Program is testing out online courses in different departments and campuses. While this could have positive benefits for expanding student access and reducing costs, our negative results show the expansion of online education needs to be done carefully in order to maximize student success.”
Hart says that while this study was done at the community college level, it still can relate to the online courses for UC schools.
“These findings are a little bit of a cautionary note in terms of throwing tons of resources into online classes,” Hart said. “But at the same time, courses will continue to change and get better over time. So if you could extrapolate these results to the UC system, there would certainly be a bit of a cautionary tale here.”
Hill says that there will likely be follow up studies to this report.
“There probably will be a lot of follow up studies, especially trying to continue to identify some of the mechanisms to answer those questions about what are some of the positives of an online class, what contributes to student performance or what potentially detracts from student performance,” Hill said.
Hill also hopes that future research will help educators better understand student and faculty interaction in online classrooms, while Friedmann believes that research regarding how engaged students are in online classes, such as by recording how often a student logs into the online course, could be useful.
“I think that the key takeaway is that there is no one size fits all approach,” Hill said. “Whether it’s the UCs or other institutions that are implementing online classes, understanding different student learning styles and maybe even more importantly helping students understand those learning styles [is important].”
Friedmann adds that online classes are becoming increasingly normalized, and therefore we need to improve the success rate of online classes.
“Online higher education is not just a trend, and can provide additional options for student access,” Friedmann said. “But policymakers and institutions need to ensure students are just as well-prepared to succeed online as they are in a face-to-face classroom.”