Study Shows Students Taking Online Courses More Likely to Fail

Maybe online education isn’t the magic pill for cash-strapped school districts and colleges.

In a newly released study of 51,000 Washington State community college students, Columbia University researchers found that students who took online courses were more likely to fail or drop out of the course than students who took the same course in person. Moreover, those students with the most Web credits were the least likely to graduate.

But even as the research shows that distance education may not be right for everybody – at least not without specific provisions to support both teachers and students – many state lawmakers and college administrators are racing toward increased virtual coursework that costs little and often turns a profit for private investors.

“Too often, the individual and collective perspective of faculty regarding online instruction is to just say no, to (de)limit this modality,” write the authors of “Negotiating Virtual Space,” an article published this year in the NEA Almanac of Higher Education.

But it makes more sense to use the collective-bargaining table to negotiate for better-quality education, the Almanac authors suggest – especially as distance learning grows increasingly popular.

At the community-college level, the number of online students has grown astronomically over the years – from 700,000 in 1998 to more than 5 million in 2007. And among high schools students, the percentage taking online courses nearly doubled to 27 percent in 2009, up from just 14 percent the year before, according to the annual “Speak Up” report.

In Florida, a new state law requires all entering 9th-graders to have at least one online class before they graduate (as does Michigan, Indiana, New Mexico, and Alabama) and it also provides that the full-time, kindergarten through 12th-grade Florida Virtual School begin offering high-school diplomas in 2013. Meanwhile, in Idaho, they’re going a step further: after state superintendent Tom Luna proposed requiring high school students to take eight classes on line – or basically a year’s worth of instruction, the state board has settled on two.

Meanwhile, in Texas, possible presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry has expanded the reach of the Texas Virtual School Network and called on state colleges to offer a $10,000 degree – something he says is possible through online education (as well as enormous class sizes.)

Proponents say online classes accommodate different kinds of students and keep potential dropouts in their classroom. It’s also clear that they save money for their state or higher-ed institution: an online class doesn’t come with bricks-and-mortar costs, its instructors may have much larger “class” sizes, and those teachers are likely to be contingent faculty members or uncertified in the state where their students live.

“Virtual education is not being expanded because it’s been demonstrated to be good for children. It has been demonstrated to be cheaper,” said Ron Meyer, a Florida Education Association lobbyist, to a local newspaper.

The study released this week, which was authored by Shanna Jaggars and Di Xu and backed by the Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation for Education, does make some recommendations for improvement: importantly, students should have more technical support and faculty more online training.

But the NEA authors — Mark Smith, Kristine Anderson Dougherty, and Gary Rhoades — suggest that many solutions, which would ensure a better experience for faculty and students, can be found through collective bargaining.

For example, at Shawnee State University, the authors found that the faculty contract ensures no online class will have more than 26 students – a number that provides for adequate student support. And, at San Diego Community College, the contract requires training and technical support for faculty.

These are the kinds of measures that will help both faculty and students to be successful in the classroom.

“It is time to the take the offensive,” the authors wrote. “Faculty members must offer an alternative, compelling framing of work, education, and quality.”

  • Florida Mom

    I find it interesting that this study is focusing on college level courses, yet the article refers to k-12 online classes. That is like comparing apples to oranges.

  • Texas teacher

    The last quote in this article is sadly telling: “Faculty members must offer an alternative, compelling framing of work, education, and quality.”

    Faculty members are scrambling to compete in a new educational landscape that has been under siege from corporate America to make a profit — at the expense of students’ learning. Just as Americans have watched jobs for the middle class go overseas and sat back in apathy — preferring instead to placate themselves by buying into the myth that we “all deserve a shot at higher education” — higher education “systems” are taking full advantage of this economic climate and exploiting our citizens by raking in financial aid dollars and loan money to offer online courses that do little to prepare graduates for the global workforce.

  • Missouri college student

    I think this article starts to highlight a few great points with the faults of online education. I think that it is a good thing to be able to offer a few classes online for specific purposes. For example a computer information systems class would be appropriate to offer online. The students have to learn about the computer in the course as is. But to offer classes like an ethics class or a speech class online are just not well suited at all. Certain classes need that student interaction in order to be effective. Also I feel that for most online classes students don’t learn as much. I say this through personal experience and through asking classmates in the past about their experiences with online courses. With all of this in mind I think it is horribly irresponsible of any higher education institution to offer an entirely online education. They have no idea who their students are, how they are learning, if they are learning, etc. Has anyone ever heard of cheating? How easy is it for a friend or family member or even a stranger to do your homework for you online? Let me answer that it would be extremely easy. So I would not feel comfortable as the president of an institution to grant a degree to an individual that I don’t even know has actually earned that degree. Also the future employers should be wary as well. If I have an online degree and they don’t know that I could be “qualified” for a job that I have no idea how to do.

  • Rob

    This is just a response to that Missouri college kid. People cheat, people always cheat. In traditional classes it’s just as easy to cheat as in online classes. I’ve seen it. All education is an honor system. Honestly it sounds like you did poorly in an online class and you came on here to down-talk them to make yourself feel better.

    There are many studies refuting this article.

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  • Joe Thomas

    Thanks, Rob. The Dept of Ed metanalysis offer a fair assessement of online coursework. This article, on the other hand, has the distinct feel of a hidden agenda …

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  • cindy dial

    Distance education can’t get a break. If more students are likely to fail their program at Cal Tech it is obviously because of an error in the admissions process. If more students are likely to bomb out of an online class it is obviously because of an error in the very concept of distance education.