Press "Enter" to skip to content

Online classes may have a darker side

An interesting study from the Brookings Institution questions the efficacy of online classes for at-risk students. At-risk students are those students who – for any number of reasons – are more likely to fail in their academic endeavors. Conditions like homelessness, substance abuse, learning disabilities, disciplinary problems and teen pregnancy can all increase a student’s risk of academic failure.

The Brookings Institution study showed that online classes have no discernible negative impact on students who normally perform well in school. For at-risk students, however, an online class can be disastrous. According to the study, one online course lowered an at-risk student’s grade point average by .44 points. In other words, students who would have earned a B- in a traditional in-person class would have earned a C in an online class.

The negative impacts of an online class persist into the following semester. The study showed that the average GPA decline was 0.15. When investigators looked at at-risk student performance in subsequent classes in the same subject area, or that the online class was a prerequisite for, the average GPA drop was .42. But the damage doesn’t stop there. At-risk students who take an online course actually increase the probability that they will drop out of school.

Community colleges need to exercise care with online classes

These findings are especially important for “non-selective” institutions – like community colleges, where at-risk students tend to congregate. These institutions have rapidly adopted online classes because administrators believe that they can deliver online classes less expensively than traditional in-person classes, while reaching more students. In addition to increasing their online coursework, they’re also actively increasing the number of dual-enrolled students. The term “dual-enrolled” refers to students who are taking classes at two different places at one time. Practically speaking, most dual-enrolled students are high school students who also enroll at the community college to earn college credits.

At-risk students are unlikely to take on the extra work involved in taking college classes while still in high school. At the same time, dual enrollment is the premise of the Washtenaw Technical Middle College (WTMC). WTMC is a charter school that operates on the campus of WCC. Student admission is by lottery, so there is a strong possibility that WTMC will admit some percentage of at-risk students. Online classwork by at-risk students could – in fact – increase their probability of leaving school before earning either a high-school diploma or a college credential.

Other studies have confirmed the negative impact of online classes for marginal students. A study involving Chicago high school students showed that at-risk students don’t learn much from online courses. The study examined students who had failed algebra delivered in a traditional classroom setting. The study authors randomly assigned students to repeat the course either in a traditional classroom or in an online course. Students who repeated algebra online clearly learned less than those students who repeated the class with an instructor present.

Online classes don’t always serve everyone

I bring this up because WCC administrators are pushing hard to an ever-growing mound of coursework online. For students who already excel in the classroom, online courses are an excellent option. They are not an excellent option for students who struggle, who are not self-motivated or who lack the skills necessary to succeed in online coursework.

In-person classes taught by professional faculty members typically offer the best chance at success for at-risk students. Moving more coursework online – and in some cases, converting classes to online -only formats – establishes a bar that some of these students cannot overcome. It eliminates learner-focused educational options for one population of students, and replaces them with an institution-focused substitute favored primarily for its lower cost-of-delivery.

Photo Credit: AJ Maul , via Flickr