In a new report that examines the factors contributing to students’ success in online courses, the Online Education Initiative (OEI) received a passing grade for taking the right steps to improve online learning in California’s community colleges.
The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) report, titled “Successful Online Courses in California's Community Colleges,” concluded that, while overall success rates for online courses are low compared to their traditional counterparts, the state-funded OEI is working to develop services and best practices aimed at improving online education and student success across the system.
“The California Community Colleges are at the forefront of online education in California, more so than any other segment of higher education in the state,” said the report’s lead author Hans Johnson, a PPIC Bren and senior fellow.
What Makes A Course Successful
In the PPIC study, a “successful” online course was defined as having at least a 70-percent passage rate where the passage rate was equal to or better than that of traditional versions of the course. Additionally, students in these courses must have had good results in subsequent courses in the same subject.
Of the 1,678 courses sampled, just 11 percent of the online courses met the criteria for success. But with no pattern emerging for why some courses were successful and others were not, researchers pointed to the lack of systematically adopted best practices for online courses.
Focus On Improving Courses, Student Support
At a public briefing on the report, held June 12 in Sacramento, Johnson focused on the need to improve online courses in order to boost student success rates. He highlighted a number of recommended approaches—many of which are already being pursued by the OEI, including:
- Course design that draws from collective strengths of diverse faculty
- Manage student expectations, including autonomy and time management
- Develop a systematic approach to teaching online skills
- Promote regular and effective means of student-instructor interaction
“What was most interesting is the information was not presented in a ‘gotcha’ kind of way, but was very open, and very complimentary about the OEI,” noted Jory Hadsell, OEI Chief Academic Affairs Officer, who attended the briefing. “Several times they alluded to the fact that OEI knows about and is taking steps to address most of the issues raised in the report.
“Unfortunately, many of the media reports I've seen about the [PPIC] report have focused almost exclusively on the gap in success rates that exists between online and traditional courses. We already know that!” Hadsell said.
Shifting The Debate
Of 2.1 million students enrolled, more than 29 percent will take a class offered through distance education this year, up from 12.5 percent in 2005-2006, according to data from the CCC Chancellor’s Office. Growth in online course enrollments is expected to continue rising as more students seek the flexibility and convenience distance education provides.
Given this trend, PPIC researchers said it is time to shift the debate away from a discussion of online vs. face-to-face courses, and to instead focus dialogue on the unique aspects of online learning that can better inform instructional practice and provide opportunities for more immediate student interventions. Some of these included:
- Uniquely important tools the online medium provides, such as real-time analytics and dashboards
- Giving students control over the pace of learning, and the ability to “rewind” and review material
- Ability for systems and faculty to monitor student progress
- Personalized, adaptive learning capabilities that can tailor the learning experience to the uniqueness of the student
While generally complimentary of the OEI’s efforts, PPIC researchers had lingering doubts about whether online education would lead to significant cost savings for the CCC, though economies of scale may eventually reduce costs. Additionally, concerns remain about disparate online success rates between ethnic groups, specifically African Americans and Latinos as compared to Caucasians and Asians.
Despite these uncertainties, the report concluded that online learning is a critical tool for improving access to higher education in California.
“Improving online learning is the key to improving efficiency, but more so to improving student success and achievement of [students’] goals,” Johnson said. “The OEI is taking the right approach. I think they are very much headed in the right direction.”
The PPIC briefing can be accessed at www.ppic.org/content/av/EventBriefing_OnlineLearning_0615.pdf. The full report is available at www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_615HJR.pdf. A video of the briefing can be seen here.
For a comprehensive look at how the OEI is addressing the need to improve access to online higher education in California, see OEI Updates: Reflecting On Our Accomplishments So Far.
More information about the OEI can be found at http://ccconlineed.org.
Crista Souza is a TechEDge Contributing Editor