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Many politicians and educators see online education as key to expanding access to higher education. But a large study of online education used by students at California's massive community college system cautions that student success may not go hand-in-hand with online education.

On many measures of student success, the study found, online students are not doing as well as those who enroll in face-to-face courses. The study, released Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, is by Cassandra M. D. Hart, Elizabeth Friedmann and Michael Hill, all of the University of California at Davis.

The authors acknowledge that comparing student success is difficult based on transcripts alone. In an ideal world (at least from an educational researcher's perspective), students of equal ability would be randomly assigned to identical face-to-face or online courses taught in similar ways.

Since researchers can't do that to California community college students, they compared success by looking at students' performance in courses from 2008-9 through 2011-12 offered at the same community college in both face-to-face and digital formats. To avoid atypical students, the researchers excluded those who already have an associate or other degree, and those in dual enrollment programs with high schools. The researchers also excluded physical education and fine arts courses, and those offered for fewer than one or more than five credits. Even with those limitations, the California system is large enough that the researchers were able to study results from 217,000 unique students.

From that sample, the researchers found online students lagging behind face-to-face students in three critical areas:

  • Completing courses (regardless of grade).
  • Completing courses with passing grades.
  • Completing courses with grades of A or B.

The results were the same across subject matters, courses of different types and different groups of students. Larger gaps were found in some areas, such as summer courses and courses taken by relatively small numbers of online students. But no patterns could be found where students online performed better than those in face-to-face courses.

The researchers note that there may be some questions about how broadly their findings can be applied. Other states may have community college systems (or other higher education systems) with better or worse online offerings, and more or less student support. And the nature of online education continues to evolve. But the researchers also note that California has placed a priority on online education, has a diverse system of community colleges and has a huge student population.

Even with the caveats they note, they write that their findings should be a caution for many. "Our results also have implications for student support in online classes," they write. "Faculty members teaching online should be aware of the performance penalty associated with taking courses online and consider implementing course policies and practices that would allow them to detect student disengagement in the absence of the physical cues that FtF [face-to-face] instructors can rely on. Students should be made aware that success rates are systematically lower in online than in FtF sections so that they can make informed enrollment decisions, and should be introduced to study strategies and time management strategies that promote success in online formats."

In terms of policy, the researchers write: "Policy makers in California and other states are interested in exploring whether online courses can be used to expand student and improve outcomes. The results suggest that there may be costs to this strategy, although formal cost-benefit analyses should explore whether the greater likelihood of course noncompletion or failure offsets the possible cost savings associated with online courses."

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