Report Weighs Benefits and Limits of Online Education

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

While offering distance learning opportunities for students can increase access to higher education and enrollment in postsecondary programs, a new report warns that students taking a large proportion of courses online are at an increased risk of dropping out. To improve student outcomes in online education, the authors suggest that institutions target online courses at specific populations of students and offer online counseling and tutoring, among other recommendations.  

The report—written by Di Xu, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and University of California, Irvine Ph.D. student Ting Xu—comes out in the middle of a series of negotiated rulemaking, or “neg reg,” sessions that the Department of Education convened to rewrite regulations related to distance learning. Some of the concerns included in this report, such as the value of student-instructor interaction, touch on arguments that higher education stakeholders debated during those sessions.

The supply of virtual courses and programs from universities and the demand for online education from students has been steadily growing, the authors found. While in 2012 around 70 percent of degree-granting institutions offered online courses, that figure grew to 76 percent by 2016. In 2016, 96 percent of public institutions offered this option to students. The authors also noted that exclusively online programs grew dramatically during this time as well. For example, the number of public institutions offering exclusive online programs to students jumped from 16 percent in 2012 to 72 percent in 2016.

With regard to student demand for online courses, the authors found a 19 percent increase of students enrolled in online courses from 2012 to 2016—from 26 percent to 32 percent—and the number of students enrolled exclusively in online courses during this time jumped by 12 percent.

The authors acknowledged in the report that online courses can open the door for students who may not have otherwise considered pursuing higher education, such as adult learners, and allow schools to expand their educational options for students.

“The convenience of online learning is particularly valuable to adults with multiple responsibilities and highly scheduled lives; thus, online learning can be a boon to workforce development, helping adults return to school and complete additional education that could otherwise not fit into their daily routines. From an institutional perspective, online courses allow colleges to offer additional classes or programs, increasing student access to required courses,” they wrote.  

However, despite the increased desire for online courses from both students and their institutions, and the benefits of offering more flexibility to adult learners, the authors warned that research has found online courses to have “negative effects on student course performance, course persistence, and other downstream learning outcomes such as course repetition and subject persistence.”

The authors cited several studies that compared face-to-face classes with online courses and found that the “learning outcomes,” such as course grades and test scores, of students in fully online courses “were substantially worse than those in the face-to-face section of the same course.” They also wrote that research has found that students in online courses are 3 to 15 percentage points more likely to withdraw from a course, and that the California Community Colleges system saw a positive relationship between taking online classes and course repetition.

The authors also found a negative relationship between taking more online courses and college persistence. Specifically, they cited a report that found that students who took at least one course online their freshman year were 5 percentage points less likely to return the next semester, and that students who take a higher proportion of online courses online were less likely to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year institution.

The authors offered suggestions in the report as to why students struggle in online courses, namely that it is due to the “requirement of higher-level self-directed learning skills” that some student lack, and “greater difficulties in enabling effective human interactions.”

“Even in high-quality online courses, students must learn course materials independently, manage time wisely, keep track of progress on course assignments, overcome technical difficulties and the feeling of isolation, and take the initiative to communicate with instructors and peers for questions and group assignments,” the authors wrote. “As such, online learning has been recognized as a highly ‘learner-autonomous’ process that requires high levels of self-motivation, self-direction, and self-discipline to succeed.”

The authors note that, coupled with “low levels of social presence” that “may lead to increased feelings of loneliness and isolation, which has negative effects on course persistence and learning performance,” the challenge of independent learning may inhibit weaker students from succeeding in online courses.

The authors suggested that to promote positive outcomes for students in online courses, institutions may need to be “more strategic” with regard to whom they offer this option to. Specifically, they wrote that colleges could provide online substitutes for courses and programs that typically enroll more adult students, while limiting the availability of online learning to courses that enroll more recent high school graduates, such as lower courses. They also suggested that schools can play with the idea of substituting just a portion of a face-to-face course with online learning as a way to still provide flexibility to students.

They also wrote that institutions should offer students taking online courses the opportunity for online counseling and tutoring services, and use online technology to monitor students’ progress in online courses to flag struggling students to be targeted for extra help.

The authors noted that institutions could invest more heavily into the instructors that teach online courses, such as by offering them professional development opportunities to learn about the unique challenges that students taking courses online face, and to best interact with a virtual class.  

During the neg reg sessions, one issue that negotiators struggled with was how to define “regular and substantive interaction” with regard to online instructors and students, such as whether an interaction once a week was enough to provide quality education. They also debated the meaning of “instructional teams” in relation to whom that interaction could be with, and argued that the term should at least include a subject matter expert. The subcommittee will reconvene next week to continue these debates.


Publication Date: 3/6/2019

David S | 3/6/2019 10:26:25 AM

I'll start by saying that I've never taken an online course; my schooling all came at a time when "worldwide web" probably would have been assumed to mean something about large invasive spiders.

My observation is that online courses require even more organizational and time management skills, plus a higher level of discipline, than in-person classes do. I'm sure most schools' online offerings are of high quality. But face it, in other cases, they have been marketed as a shortcut college degree...I remember the commercials (usually shown during the day along with ads for injury attorneys and help for those who think they have a get-rich-quick invention) for "College in Your Pajamas" (fun fact: some students attend in-person classes in their pajamas). There is no shortcut to a quality education, it's something that takes a lot of hard work and discipline, you can't do it while you're binge-watching The Bachelor or whatever. Online education still needs to get past the idea that it's easy, because I fear that it's attracting students who aren't as likely to succeed.

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