The wholesale replacement of community college curriculums with online courses might not be the best idea, according to new research  from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
That’s because community college students prefer face-to-face courses over their online equivalents in certain subjects, the study found, particularly courses they consider difficult, interesting or important.
The researchers conducted one-on-one interviews with students and found the majority “felt they did not learn the course material as well when they took it online," according to the study. “For most students, this deficit was due to reduced teacher explanation and interaction.”
The study, which is part of a larger research project, was based on interviews with 46 students who were attending two Virginia community colleges who had taken both kinds of courses. While that sample is small, it still provides a good snapshot of attitudes at two-year institutions, said Shanna Smith Jaggars, the center’s assistant director and the author of the study.
“The students who we talked to are fairly representative of the typical student who takes online courses,” she said.
Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, cautioned against making sweeping conclusions about the research, given the limited sample size.
But Poulin said community colleges need to be strategic about where to add online options. That’s particularly true when budgets are tight, as most are in the sector.
“Being discerning makes sense,” he said.
Online courses offer plenty of advantages to community college students. Overall, 97 percent of two-year institutions offer some online courses, according to the study. And a large and growing number of students (22 percent of the sector’s overall enrollment in 2008) take at least one course online.
Yet only 3 percent of community college students are enrolled in an entirely online degree program, according to the study. That means almost all two-year students who take online courses are also taking traditional, classroom-based courses.
The major draws for the occasional online course are flexibility and convenience, according to the students interviewed for the study. Some also said the courses allowed them to use their learning time more efficiently.
“I’m not so much distracted by other students,” one said in an interview.
However, only 5 of the 46 students said they would take all their courses online if they could. And almost all of the students said student-instructor interaction online did not match that of the traditional classroom, calling the online version more distant and impersonal.
The students said they preferred face-to-face instruction for certain types of courses. Those include laboratory science, foreign languages and public speaking.
The study’s findings did not surprise Richard Garrett, vice president and principal analyst for Eduventures.
“Online isn’t for everyone or for all subjects,” he said. “It’s harder to do some subjects online.”
The students who were interviewed for the study said they prefer taking one type of course online: easy ones.
“Students felt that they could ‘teach themselves’ courses if they felt competent to learn the subject matter strictly from a textbook or other readings, with little or no explicit instruction,” according to the research. “For more difficult courses, they felt that stronger instructor guidance was necessary.”
In addition, students generally said they prefer taking courses in person if they found the subject matter particularly interesting. For example, one female student said she could learn much more in face-to-face psychology courses than in their online equivalents.
“Those teachers, they always have other little things to talk about in the class, and stories and examples,” she said. “You don’t really get that quite as much with online.”
Some community college students want more online courses, or even fully-online programs, Jaggars said. But she thinks they are in the minority, albeit a fairly loud one.
The hype around massive open online courses might also be contributing to some irrational exuberance about online learning’s potential for community colleges, said Jaggars.
While a good MOOC might make students feel like they know a professor, “it won’t make you think they know you,” she said. And that loss of personal interaction and support can be problematic, particularly for students who need extra help.