College students more likely to fail online

Jul 25, 2011

College students in Washington are less likely to “make the grade” if they take courses online. A new study found that students have a greater chance of not only bombing classes if they take them remotely but of dropping out completely.

Yet, students and educators say distance learning isn’t failing. 

Researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University arrived at their conclusion after analyzed the records of 51,017 students at Washington's community and technical colleges. Stephanie Carlson, of Kenmore, Wash., was one of those students.

She took a couple of online courses through Cascadia Community College in 2009, but she was nervous about them after her first experience with distance learning a few years earlier at Everett Community College:

“I attempted to take a math class," she says. "In high school, math was one of my fortes and I was pretty confident of my skill. I actually completely failed that class.”

She might have done better if she'd taken the course in person. She says she passed the other 2 classes she went to in the flesh. Those results are also in line with the study's findings.

Risk of dropping out

The researchers found that students who have face-to-face instruction are eight percent more likely to pass their classes. Shanna Jaggars, co-author of the study, says while that might not sound like a lot, it’s a big deal:  

“You know, with each online course that you take, if it gives you a slightly smaller chance of finishing that course successfully, the more often you do that, the more it kind of accumulates and makes it likely that there will be real consequences.”

The consequences she’s referring to are students dropping out. She says students who took the most online courses were the least likely to graduate, despite the fact that they tend to have advantages over students who stick to in-person instruction, including: 

  • higher income
  • higher prior grade point averages
  • and are more likely to be fluent in English

She says what they don’t have is a good command of the pacing, technology and structure of online courses.  

Attempts to close the gap

Melissa Ivarson, of Seattle, says that was true for her when she first started taking online courses at North Seattle Community College, though she defied the odds by getting her Associate of Arts degree last year without ever enrolling in classes face to face.

Connie Broughton, interim director of eLearning at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, says schools are trying to make improvements for online students.

In addition to an assessment students can take to gauge their readiness for distance learning, she says colleges are providing more training and support for instructors. 

Broughton, Jaggars and the students all say as they learn more about online education, the achievement gap could close over time.