Online courses have lower success rates than f2f in California community colleges; Arizona State demonstrates a better approach

A recent study out of the University of California-Davis finds that students in California community colleges have lower success rates in online courses than in face-to-face courses. The Hechinger Report notes:

“The new UC-Davis community college study looks at the entire universe of online courses, from psychology to engineering, offered at 112 public community colleges throughout California. The researchers examined student course-taking records over four years, from 2008-09 through 2011-12, and compared student outcomes for those classes in which students had the choice between taking the exact same course online or in person."

The researchers found:

“…community college students throughout California were 11 percent less likely to finish and pass a course if they opted to take the online version instead of the traditional face-to-face version of the same class”

In summary:

‘In every subject, students are doing better face-to-face,’ said Cassandra Hart, one of the paper’s authors. ‘Other studies have found the same thing. There’s a strong body of evidence building up that students are not doing quite as well in online courses, at least as the courses are being designed now in the community college sector.’

This study mirrors K-12 online learning studies such as in Michigan, which suggest that course completions in online courses are lower than completion rates in face-to-face courses.

But as we have discussed on this blog (here and here), lower passing rates don’t necessarily suggest that online courses aren’t a good option for some students. One reason is that, as The Hechinger Report notes, “rigorous studies at four-year colleges have tended to find no difference in student performance between traditional face-to-face lecture courses and online courses…But most of these studies have taken place at selective colleges, where students are much stronger academically, and perhaps more self-motivated, than the typical community college student.”

These results suggest that online courses and programs can help students, but that some students require more investment and attention. Indeed, Arizona State University and Starbucks have found exactly this in their collaboration to provide an education to tens of thousands of Starbucks employees:

“Many college students today have very little room for error. They don’t live on campus; they attend school online or at a community college. They work full-time and have limited cash. When things go wrong, even small things, a spiral of problems can ensue that ends up causing them to abandon school, the one part of their lives that feels optional. But with a little support—just one or two people in their corner—these same students can prove extremely resilient. ‘We know if you surround any student with love and attention and good coaching and mentorship, they will succeed,’ Daniel Greenstein, who directs college-completion initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told me. Over time, Greenstein has become more and more convinced that data-driven, student-centered university cultures can reverse the college-dropout trends. ‘The research tells us that what really matters for low-income and first-generation students,” he said, ‘is that you put your arms around them.’”

These are not simple or low-cost efforts to help students succeed, but the combination of online courses AND additional supports can provide new opportunities for students who otherwise would not take college courses. This is as true in K-12 schools as it is in community colleges. Digital learning isn’t easy, it’s not automatically successful, and it isn’t less expensive overall. But the evidence from ASU, Florida Virtual School, and others shows that with thoughtful investment online learning can provide new paths for students who might not otherwise find success in their education.