Online Classes May Worsen Educational Achievement Gap, Study Shows

Katherine Long, Seattle Times, March 16, 2013

It’s one of the most hyped ideas in higher education today—the hope that college courses taught online can drive down the cost of a degree, and make it easier for working students to complete their college education.

But a new study comparing the success rates of online and traditional, face-to-face courses taught at Washington’s community colleges shows more students drop out, and fewer get a passing grade, when they take a class online than when they take it in a classroom.

And the students who fare the worst are those who are already struggling in college, raising the possibility that a push to more online classes could exacerbate the higher-education achievement gap.

The study was done by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, at the request of Washington’s community colleges.

The data included results from 500,000 courses taken by 40,000 students over four years — tapping into “a strong and robust data system” the state keeps on success rates in community colleges, said Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the research center.

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It found that males, black students and students with lower levels of academic preparation were the ones most likely to fail to finish a class, or get a lower grade. Those groups already have lower performance levels in college, and the gaps worsened in online courses.

“If this pattern holds true across other states and educational sectors, it would imply that the continued expansion of online learning could strengthen, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity,” the study says.

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On average, about 85 percent of students who start a Washington community college course complete it successfully, said Connie Broughton, director of eLearning and Open Education for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Online courses have completion rates that are 6 to 10 percentage points lower, she said.

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“We’re working very hard at it,” she [Broughton] said, adding, “We really don’t know how to close that gap. We don’t know what the right answer is.”

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