Online Education: Off Base?

Glenn Ricketts

Online education is back in the news, and the pot has been stirred anew with the recent release of two new studies that examine the current state of online teaching and learning. One comes from the U.S. Department of Education, the other from two researchers at East Carolina University. They offer contrasting conclusions with regard to the central question, and do not resolve the debate over the value of new “instructional technology.” The discussion threads attached to the relevant press coverage (see Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education,[requires subscription]) reflect the divide between those who regard online courses as the silver bullet to fix American higher education, and skeptics who believe that the enthusiasm of supporters rests much more on hope than on reality.  

The Department of Education’s document, “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning,” was released with hoopla, including a glowing endorsement of online education from federal education secretary Arne Duncan, who urges educators everywhere to upgrade their educational technology. That was also the view at Inside Higher Ed, which heralded the DOE’s study with the headline, “The Evidence on Online Education.” But evidence wouldn’t matter for obstinate critics, one commentator, “random thoughts,” observed, venturing,“I bet there are a lot of folks who won’t be persuaded because no evidence will persuade them.” 

I’m among those not persuaded, chiefly because the only useful “evidence” I could see in the DOE report and attending commentary was of how badly many optimists want online education to work. The document doesn’t actually break new ground; instead, it is described as a “meta-study,” a narrow review of existing “empirical studies” of online courses published between 1996 and July 2008. And I do mean narrow: from a total of 1132 articles published on this topic within these years, a mere 51 or 4.5% were deemed suitable for inclusion in the DOE’s “meta” research. It’s hard to avoid the impression, as some dissenters noted, that these studies were cherry-picked, since they lend support to the conclusion that the authors hoped for. The report itself adds a cautionary note:

Although the types of research designs used by the studies in the meta-analysis were strong (i.e., experimental or controlled quasi-experimental), many of the studies suffered from weaknesses, such as small sample sizes; failure to report retention rates for students in the conditions being contrasted; and, in many cases, potential bias stemming from the authors’ dual roles as experimenters and instructors.

What catches my eye in particular is the “failure to report retention rates.” Any reckoning of success, I would think, has to take account of student attrition: how many typically withdraw from online courses? It’s fine if the remaining students earn A or B grades (See? Online education works great), but if 50% or more decided to drop the course, that needs to be noted as well (What happened to them? What were their grades when they dropped the course? Why did they drop it?). 

Several respondents highlighted other soft spots. The sample cohorts skewed towards older students, and the criterion for measuring academic performance varied significantly between them: sometimes it was calculated on the basis of mid-term grades, sometimes on final exam results. Despite the inconsistency, Secretary Duncan sees the DOE’s “meta-study” as a ringing endorsement of online education.

The second report, by Cheryl McFadden and Belinda Patterson of East Carolina University, seems far more credible, both as a legitimate study and in its more limited conclusions.  “Attrition in Online and Campus Degree Programs” provides some quantitative data illustrating the comparative drop-out rate between online and regular students in two masters-level courses, one in business and the other in communications, between fall 2002 and fall 2004. The results are drawn from a sample of 640 students. The authors report that 43% of online MBA students withdrew from the program, compared with 11% of the regular campus-based students. 23.5% of online communications degree students dropped out, compared with 4% of their on-campus counterparts. McFadden and Patterson observe that these findings are consistent with previous research detailing high drop-out rates at other institutions. They note that the online students tended to be older and more likely to be juggling full-time jobs and family obligations. These factors could account for the high withdrawal rate, rather than marginal academic qualifications or dissatisfaction with the program. McFadden and Patterson conclude:

Online program delivery is a viable method of delivery offering unprecedented access to higher education; however, the attrition rates in online programs found by this study suggest that attrition in online program formats remains an issue and challenge warranting the attention of educational leaders in program planning and development. This study confirms previous research by revealing a significant difference between campus and online dropout rates. In addition, this study strengthens the claim by comparing online and campus cohorts from the same degree program. 

Some commentators attributed high drop-out rates to the inadequacies of specific programs or the incompetence of instructors, not with online education per se. Others insisted that poor preparation for using the “new technology,” leaves both instructors and students unable to navigate online courses, and that this explains why students drop them. 

Some comments mirror my experience with online teaching at a community college. Many students enroll in online courses in the mistaken belief that they’re not only convenient, but also less demanding than regular classroom offerings. Their attitude punctures the pretense of those who think online ed all by itself will change the way students think. We’ve been here before. Some 25 years ago “telecourses” such as Sunrise Semester were likewise intended to revolutionize education.   The sun finally set on Sunrise in 1982, and the telecourse revolution is now pretty much limited to Teletubbies and Sesame Street.

Increasing numbers of students come to college unprepared for rigorous academic work and end up in remediation. Accustomed to in-class support, aggressive parental intervention, appeals to guidance counselors or passing their courses simply because they completed most of their homework assignments, they lack the self-discipline to make effective use of online courses. Students commonly manifest chronic impunctuality, unmannerly, inattentive behavior in class, and remarkably casual attitudes toward course requirements and completion deadlines. In this light, I don’t find it surprising that withdrawal and failure rates in my regular courses are significantly higher than in the past.  I’m even less surprised that the trend is more pronounced in online courses. Online education requires a degree of concentration, self-discipline and a capacity for time management that simply aren’t practiced by the students I encounter from one semester to the next.  I have taught some very determined autodidacts online who performed well, along with some competent B and C students. But the failure and drop rates for my online courses have consistently been between 50 and 80%, usually more than enough to justify pulling the plug on conventional courses. 

The problems of online courses aren’t confined to student limitations. Some faculty members like them because they can work at home and rarely have to meet with students. One of the most frequent complaints I’ve seen about online courses concerns faculty truancy—that some instructors are difficult, if not impossible to contact, that they are remiss in returning written work or test grades and that consultation with them is virtually non-existent (as in this student’s experience at UNC Chapel Hill). Professors can act this way in regular classroom courses as well, but for an instructor who wants to avoid contact with students—or colleagues—teaching online certainly offers an especially appealing escape route. 

No doubt online education will continue to be promoted by those who are convinced of its promise. Apart from its putative educational value, it’s attractive to college administrators for practical reasons: it costs less, it offers deliverance from the classroom space problem that increasingly squeezes many community colleges, it alleviates parking worries, it services those unable to attend classes on campus, and it gives many consumer-minded students the convenience they desire.

For my part, I’m not going to stop teaching the occasional online course, because I think that it can indeed provide just the ticket for a specific segment of the student population. I’m far from convinced, however, that it’s the ticket for most students.

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