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Online class delivery problems play out as expected

About six weeks ago – which now seems like six years ago – I wrote about the “darker side of online class delivery” at community colleges. Today, virtually all community colleges in the United States are conducting the Winter semester online. Some data are now coming in about the relative success of transferring all coursework online. It’s not all good.

Instructors at Glendale College – part of the California community college system – report that about 10% of their students have simply stopped showing up since the college transitioned to online class delivery. Using data from the Brookings Institution, good students will make the transition to online class delivery just fine. The students who were marginal to begin with will have a tough time.

Add on to this group the students who don’t have the resources at home to complete online coursework. They may lack the right devices, adequate Internet connectivity and space to work from home. They may be competing for these resources with their children or other household members – who are also home right now. Those other household members may be competing for the students’ attention and time. And students may be overly burdened with economic issues and family care issues. They might also be sick with the coronavirus.

Online class delivery doesn’t work for vocational, occupational students

It’s not hard to see why students have gone AWOL. In a way, it’s surprising that more aren’t missing.

It also raises the question of how to entice those students to return to campus once it reopens – which could be several months from now. Glendale College administrators have already determined that they will withdraw the students who didn’t make the online transition. No student will fail a course due to online class delivery.

Certain types of classes don’t fit well into the online delivery model. Vocational, occupational and laboratory classes come to mind. WCC’s approach for these students is to give them incompletes, under the assumption that the students will work out a plan to complete the missing classwork.

Take another look at remedies for vocational, occupational students

This is the wrong approach for vocational and occupational education students. Like Glendale College, WCC should withdraw these students and give them the opportunity to start over in a future semester. Here’s why. If in-person classes cannot resume until the fall semester, the affected students will be in the position of needing to complete classwork in the fall that accompanies instruction they received (or partially received) in January, February and March. That alone puts these students at a huge disadvantage.

Second, in certain classes, it will be hard – if not impossible – to make up lab time. For example, the auto shop has only so many lifts, and time in the shop is carefully scheduled. The welding lab has only so many welders, and students often spend hours practicing welding techniques to master them. If these “incomplete students” from the Winter semester have to compete with students enrolled in fall semester classes for shop time and instructor time, WCC is simply setting these students up to fail.

Third, many of these “incomplete students” will be enrolled in Fall classes, while simultaneously trying to clean up loose ends from the aborted Winter semester. A full-time student might have to attempt to complete 7-8 classes at one time. A highly motivated student might be able to do this; most students will not.

Aside from setting these students up to fail, it is grossly unfair to the instructors, who now have to manage their regular instructional course load and an army of “shadow students” who are trying to complete course requirements from six months earlier. Further, if a student’s Winter class was taught by a part-time instructor, and the instructor is not available in subsequent semesters, who oversees the student?

Remedies should not frustrate retention

This is simply not the way to entice students to return to campus for in-person instruction. Withdraw these students and let them start these courses again from the beginning, when in-person instruction and classroom facilities are available again. Forcing these students to wrestle with Winter-semester incompletes while also they also attempt in the Spring/Summer or Fall semester will produce even more AWOL students.

Photo Credit: crmgucd/Nicole Sullivan, via Flickr