Home > Uncategorized > Unsurprising Results in Online Courses: Self-Actualized Learners Do Fine… Others, Not So Well

Unsurprising Results in Online Courses: Self-Actualized Learners Do Fine… Others, Not So Well

January 21, 2018

The NYTimes featured an op ed article by University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski earlier this week with the unsurprising headline: “Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need Help the Most“. The article describes a study that concluded that “…the growth of online education is hurting a critical group: the less proficient students who are precisely those most in need of skilled classroom teachers.” But, as Ms. Dynarsky notes, these are the very students who are being steered into online coursework in the name of efficiency and equity.

Online learning is more efficient. After all, a single teacher— or in some cases and single teacher and an algorithm— can oversee hundreds of students working online. But too often, online courses are used for the purpose of credit restoration, and when students “pass” an online credit restoration course they gain far less understanding than students who take the same content face-to-face. But passing as many students as possible is important when the metric for “success” is pass rates and if one can achieve a pass rate using computers it saves a substantial amount in the budget.

Online learning can provide equity, but only if the students are highly motivated. As Ms. Dynarsky writes:

Online courses have many real benefits… They can help high achievers in need of more advanced coursework than their districts provide through other means. This is especially true in small, rural districts that offer few specialized, traditional courses for students working ahead of their grades.

A study in Maine and Vermont examined the effect of online courses on eighth graders with strong math skills in schools that didn’t offer face-to-face algebra classes. Students were randomly assigned either to online algebra or to the less challenging, standard math offered in traditional classes.

Both groups of students were tested at the end of the school year. The online algebra students did substantially better than their counterparts in standard classrooms. They were also twice as likely to complete advanced math later in high school.

Having worked in rural schools, this result is unsurprising. Often small schools enroll weaker students in a course labelled as “Algebra” in order to provide the course for children in their school… but many of the students in the course are only marginally prepared for the rigors. The online courses, though, are often limited to those students with “strong math skills”, which would account for the differential in performance at the conclusion of the course.

The real damage done to struggling students occurs at the higher education level:

n colleges, especially in nonselective and for-profit schools, online education has expanded rapidly, too, with similar effects. These schools disproportionately enroll low-income students who are often the first in their families to attend college. Such students tend to drop out of college at very high rates. Students with weak preparation don’t fare well in online college classes, as recent researchby professors at Harvard and Stanford shows.

These scholars examined the performance of hundreds of thousands of students at DeVry University, a large for-profit college with sites across the country. DeVry offers online and face-to-face versions of all its courses, using the same textbooks, assessments, assignments and lecture materials in each format. Even though the courses are seemingly identical, the students who enroll online do substantially worse.

The effects are lasting, with online students more likely to drop out of college altogether. Hardest hit are those who entered the online class with low grades. Work by researchers in many other colleges concurs with the DeVry findings: The weakest students are hurt most by the online format.

And to make matters worse, these for-profit “colleges” often use false advertising to entice enrollees who take out loans to pay— or more accurately OVERpay– for the courses they take. Ms. Dynarksy leads this conclusion out of her analysis: This scam, more than anything, adds to the student loan crisis facing our country.

 

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