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.”