Online Education

Overview of Online Education

Online education is growing rapidly in higher education. In California, community colleges have taken the lead, offering thousands of online courses to hundreds of thousands of students. Total online course enrollment reached about one million in 2013–14. Online learning seemingly offers something for everyone. For scholars, it is a convenient way to get college courses. For faculty, it offers new pedagogical tools that could get better scholar results. For college administrators, it allows their institutions to reach more students, providing a new source of enrollment. For policymakers, it holds the promise of reducing the costs of higher education.

Online Education

But online learning has detractors and some clear disadvantages. Paramount among them is that students, on average, are less successful in online courses than in traditional courses in which students and teachers interact face-to-face. In California’s community colleges, students are about 10 to 14 percentage points less likely to complete an online course successfully than a traditional course, even when differences in student characteristics and other factors are taken into account (Johnson and Cuellar-Mejia 2014). The results are worse for ethnic and racial minorities. African American and Hispanic students have respectively 17.5 and 9.8 percentage points lower online course success rates than white students (Johnson and Cuellar-Mejia 2014). Overall, only about 60 percent of community college students enrolled in online courses successfully completes them.

The achievement gap between online and traditional face-to-face courses must be narrowed or closed if online learning is to reach its full potential. Eliminating this gap is an important goal of the Online Education Initiative (OEI), a California Community College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) program to centralize online course application, registration, and administration. One way to close the gap is to identify best practices from successful online courses and scale up.

In addition, the goal of lower costs seems elusive. Most online course experts do not anticipate savings in the short run because of start-up costs. Even in the long run, savings might not be achieved due to higher costs as courses are updated and technology is upgraded.

This report examines what practices make online courses successful in California’s community colleges. Our goal is to improve understanding of what works and what does not work in online learning. The first section uses CCCCO data to determine how successful online courses have been. The 2nd part discusses best practices in online education, based on academic explore and our interviews with faculty, administrators, and others. The third section looks at emerging technologies that are improving online-course success rates by taking advantage of the online environment and providing tools not available in traditional learning. The report then considers the OEI’s strengths, weaknesses, and potential. Finally, we offer recommendations for advancing online learning in California as a way to make higher education more accessible and more effective.

How Many Online Courses Are Successful?

Our approach uses empirical data to identify courses in which students seemed to excel. Specifically, we look at student outcomes to identify successful online courses, relying on two primary criteria: course passage rates and student performance in subsequent courses in the same subject. By our definition, to be successful, online courses must have a higher share of students with passing grades than in traditional versions of the course. In addition, students must have high rates of completing and passing courses they take later in the same subject.

Our logic is straightforward. We start with the premise that a successful course is one that maximizes student learning. The best and most direct measure of learning is whether a student completes a course with a passing grade. Moreover, how well a student does in subsequent courses in the same subject depends partly on how much the student learned in previous courses in the subject. The subsequent performance also guards against rewarding grade inflation in the original online course. We use statistical models to adjust our estimates, of course, success rates to take into account factors that are beyond the control of the instructor, such as concentrations of high-performing students and ease of subject matter.

For every course in our sample, we calculate the share of students who completed the course with a passing grade, and we evaluate online student performance in subsequent courses in the same subject area. We calculate course passage rates for both traditional and online courses, making the statistical adjustments described above. We deem as highly successful the online courses that had at least 70 percent passage rates, and in which the passage rates were equal to or higher than those in traditional versions of the course. Furthermore, students in courses with high passage rates must have had good results in subsequent courses in the same subject. We restrict our sample to lower-division transferable courses taught both online and face-to-face, and we require that enrollments exceeded 25 students in each version of the course.

The majority of online courses did not meet our explanation of success. For example, only 16 percent of online courses in our sample had passage rates of 70 percent or higher, compared with 44 percent of traditional courses (Figure 1). The median passage rate was about 10 percentage points higher for traditional courses (69%) than for online courses (59%). The difference in passage rates reflected more failing grades and more incompletion in online courses than in traditional courses. The differences persist even when we adjust for student mix, college, subject, and term (see Technical Appendix A for details).

Another component of our definition of success is that passage rates in a course’s online version must have been at least as high as in the traditional version, after adjusting for factors such as differences in student mix. Figure 2 compares online versions of courses directly with their traditional counterparts. It shows that the large majority of online courses had lower passage rates (i.e., many more courses are below rather than above the diagonal). In our sample, just 26 percent of online courses had passage rates at least as high as their traditional counterparts. Online course success rates were at least 10 percentage points higher than traditional success rates in only 24 of 924 online courses. Furthermore, in 439 online courses, success rates were at least 10 percentage points lower than in traditional courses. Among online courses with higher success rates than their traditional counterparts, about two-thirds had course passage rates of greater than 70 percent. Thus, just 16 percent of online courses in 2013–14 had both higher passage rates than their traditional counterparts and at least a 70 percent passage rate.

When we consider whether student online course success continued into other courses (either online or face-to-face) in the same subject, our estimates of the number of successful online courses fall.

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