Online & Engaged: How to Help Ensure Student Success in Online Courses-Despite Research Pointing to Disengagement of Distant Learners at Community Colleges

By Millard, Elizabeth | University Business, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Online & Engaged: How to Help Ensure Student Success in Online Courses-Despite Research Pointing to Disengagement of Distant Learners at Community Colleges


Millard, Elizabeth, University Business


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AT PITT COMMUNITY COLLEGE (N.C.), online learning is about more than just putting in-person course content onto the web. Officials have created a system that emphasizes preparation for students and instructors. The institution will even be launching a certification program for professors wanting to enhance their online teaching skills. "We don't want online courses to be a barrier to success in any way, for anyone," says Don Hazelwood, director of instructional technology and distance education. "We all have to work together." Despite efforts such as these, barriers are common. Studies have found that maintaining engagement in online courses can be especially difficult for community college students. Still, there are ways to help students beat the odds and succeed in distance learning situations.

Roadblocks to Online Learning

A Community College Research Center report released in March 2011 looked at enrollment patterns and academic outcomes in online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses among students enrolled in Washington state community and technical colleges in the fall of 2004. The researchers, Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars of Teachers College, Columbia University, tracked students for nearly five years and found that they were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from those they attended in person.

Also, students who took online coursework in early terms were slightly, but significantly less likely, to return to school in subsequent terms. In contrast, those who took a hybrid course were equally likely to complete the course as those enrolled in a face-to-face course.

The findings were similar to a study done by the Virginia Community College System, which tracked student outcomes over a four-year period, concluding in 2008. Students with stronger academic preparation were more likely m enroll in online courses, but even with that advantage, they were likely to fail or withdraw from online courses compared to face-to-face courses. Students at VCC who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in a subsequent semester, and those who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.

Interpreting the Results

Lumina Foundation for Education funded the Washington state study, with supplementary funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and researcher Jaggars notes that the original intent was to discover whether online learning would increase access for low-income students.

If these types of students don't have to commute, wouldn't they be able to perform better since they can devote more time to study and less to travel? "The idea was that they'd progress through school more easily," says Jaggars. "We weren't sure if that's what we'd see in the results, but we certainly didn't expect the type of negative impact with online courses that ended up being reported."

Indeed, the researchers noted many advantages for online learning in the report, mentioning the ability for small colleges to offer a wider range of courses, to solve the "available seats" issue in face-to-face courses, and to save on the expenses associated with physical classrooms.

But online coursework may be more difficult for some students to complete, which could inhibit their academic progression and eventual completion, the study noted. Low-income and underprepared students can face challenges including technical difficulties, a sense of social distance and isolation, and limited availability of online student support services. Another issue is a lack of the "high learner control" that may be needed for success in the relatively unstructured and flexible online learning environment.

To help ameliorate these difficulties while still allowing for increased flexibility, some institutions have created hybrid approaches that blend online coursework with face-to-face class meetings. …

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