Impacting Distance Learning Success Rates
Machuca, Wayne, Academic Exchange Quarterly
Comparison of distance education (DE) and face-to-face (F2F) classes at a California community college found that a significant difference did exist between success and retention rates with the DE rates far lower than equivalent F2F classes. Further investigation discovered that the DE success rates for the school were in many cases significantly lower than the statewide DE averages. Changes in the delivery and accountability of the classes were instated for the fall 2003 semester resulting in a significant improvement in success rates.
The College of the Sequoias (COS) developed an experimental distance education program to support the Language Arts department in 1996. Though absent of funding, training, mission or support, the DE program expanded to include the divisions of Math, Business, Child Development, Library, and the Government and Nutrition programs. It uses Blackboard[R] as its DE delivery software.
COS is a medium sized community (junior) college located in Tulare county in the southern end of California's San Joaquin valley. It has one of the geographically largest districts in the state and includes all of King's County as well. While centrally located, COS' demographics are nearly identical to all of the surrounding colleges which include the community colleges at Porterville, Bakersfield, Fresno City, Reedley, and West Hills. Statistical data from the Chancellor's office indicated the near identical demographics for each school for the spring 2003 semester for ethnicity, age group, and gender. 
Though typical in demographic to the colleges in its vicinity, COS far exceeds its neighbors in student success. In this research, success is defined as the student's completion of a course with an A, B, or C grade. In the spring 2003 semester, COS reported 22,629 successful student completions out of 32,291 attempts (the average student enrolls in 3 classes) for a success rate of 70.08% . Though the success rates at COS were higher than its demographically identical neighbors, the success rates for COS' DE courses were significantly lower with 233 successes out of 500 attempts for a success rate of only 46.6%--a difference of 24.2 points. This significant difference between the success rates of the DE classes and the success rate of the school overall, along with national research indicating that DE success and F2F success should be the same (Beattie, Spooner, F., Jordan, Algozzine, & Spooner, M, 2002; see also Butler, 2004 and Scott, 2002), caused the administration at COS to consider deep cutbacks in the DE program and possible elimination. This consideration was the inspiration for this research. The two questions that this project sought to answer were 1) the true distinction of the differences in the success rates between the DE and the F2F classes, and 2) to identify ways of decreasing that difference without reducing the rigor of the DE classes.
Quantification of Success Rates
While distance education has been available for quite some time (Schrum, 2002), and has been well researched (Nather, 2003; Beattie, 2002; Scott, 2002), there has been a significant increase of late in the number of DE offerings and in the number of institutions now providing DE courses, programs, and entire degrees (Donahue, 2002). As such, over 3 million students (Waits, 2003) are currently involved in some form of distance education. The California Community Colleges have witnessed a 380% growth in the number of DE noncredit courses and a 180% increase in the number of DE students (152,690 in 2001-02) (Nather, 2003). Additionally, the landmark on-going research by Thomas Russell (n.d.) demonstrates a wide body of work indicating the equality of DE and F2F education. Yet, Nather (2003) did find that in the California community colleges, the average success rate for DE classes is 54% where the average success rates for F2F classes is 64%. …