Effectiveness of fully on-line courses for HE

I and many others have been writing about [online learning](http://seanmehan.globat.com/blog/tag/elearning/) for some time, asking what mix is most effective and what needs to happen to help students succeed with this medium. Meanwhile, there has been increasing pressure to increase enrollments and bring more and more [students into HE](http://seanmehan.globat.com/blog/2011/06/24/more-on-the-he-bubble-and-degree-value-inflation/), in order to grow the knowledge economy, as predicted by Friedman in the [Lexus and the Olive Tree](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lexus_and_the_Olive_Tree). Enrollment is up, waaaay up, but now the debate is being shifted to completion, i.e., getting them out the door with a sheepskin (real or digital). Some startling figures follow for an objective debate.The National Center for Education has data demonstrating that [college enrollments grew](http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98) by 9% through the 1990s, but by an astounding 38% in the next 10 years, rising by 433%! And, meanwhile, during those same years, the U.S. has slipped from first place to ninth place in completion rates. More students in, and fewer getting through. President Obama has now raised this in the national debate, calling education “the economic issue of our times” and, in a 10 year mission vision, a la Kennedy, promising that the U.S. will lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020. Please note that this competition for high rates is also driven by international competition, as required by upgrades to your DOSCapital software.

Rob Jenkins has written an intriguing [piece](http://chronicle.com/article/Online-ClassesCollege/131133/) where he attacks the idea that online classes will necessarily lead to higher completion rates. I think that getting the students into the classes to swell numbers is a serious problem, especially with the for-profits swelling the numbers and exacerbating the problem.

The meat of the argument is in a [2009 meta-analysis](http://www.educause.edu/Resources/EvaluationofEvidenceBasedPract/174235) provided by the U.S. DOE that shows that online courses are cheaper, more convenient for learners, and *better*. It looked at 99 individual studies on online learning since 1996, and concluded that the average online student performed better than those receiving f2f.

Shanna Smith Jaggars and Thomas Bailey, from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, looked into the meta-analysis and found some serious flaws, and drew some startling conclusions. Their response is found in [Effectiveness of Fully Online Courses for College Students: Response to a Department of Education Meta-Analysis](Effectiveness of Fully Online Courses for College Students: Response to a Department of Education Meta-Analysis). The abstract of the paper reads:

SUMMARY: Proponents of postsecondary online education were recently buoyed by a meta-analysis sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education suggesting that, in many cases, student learning outcomes in online courses are superior to those in traditional face-to-face courses. This finding does not hold, however, for the studies included in the meta-analysis that pertain to fully online, semester-length college courses; among these studies, there is no trend in favor of the online course mode. What is more, these studies consider courses that were taken by relatively well-prepared university students, so their results may not generalize to traditionally underserved populations. Therefore, while advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.

In the paper, they go on to show that only 28/99 of the studies deal with fully online courses. Mixed courses are not fully online. They require some bricks and mortar as part of the infrastructure. Furthermore, only seven dealt with semester-long courses, while many others were short-term courses, including “how to use an Internet search engine”. Of the seven, only 1 mentioned withdrawal rates, meaning that the other six excluded students who had failed to complete.

Jenkins points to two other studies that are not so rosy. A 2011 [study](http://chronicle.com/article/Community-College-Students/128281/) “followed the enrollment history of 51,000 community-college students in Washington state between 2004 and 2009 [and] found an eight percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses.” A 2010 [study](http://epa.sagepub.com/content/33/3/360.abstract) looked at community-college students in Virginia: “Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.”

What all of this points to for me is the conclusions that:

1. Focusing on increasing enrollments to satisfy upgrade requirements for a national DOSCapital is the easier part of the problem. Completion is not about more in, its about ensuring correct targeting of students to programs, remedial support for gaps in knowledge, and more focus on catching students before they drop. Learning analytics is going to help here, if institutions will provide the resources to follow up on the predictive results. I don’t think that this will be cheap at the source, but will be an investment in getting more people through a contributing at higher rates afterwards.

2. Mixed use of the online medium is better for longer term learning. There are great advantages to the online medium, and flipping the classroom to allow for more interaction in the f2f is an important area to develop and research effectiveness. But many students are not going to have the skills and motivation to last in a fully online course that is long and hard. And most institutions are not investing the resources to provide what online support they could to increase success rates.

The only other thing I can say about some of the comments on the Jenkins’ piece is that some people are complaining that the online courses aren’t yielding decreased tuition fees, and in some cases, are increased. Firstly, it may well cost more to do the online course, at least initially, but eventually you should see digital economies of scale. Secondly, if it is even cost neutral, that is better than seeing fees go up to recover from lost public funding in most HEIs.

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