Does Online Education Help Low-income Students Succeed?

column | Digital Learning

Does Online Education Help Low-income Students Succeed?

By Robert Ubell (Columnist)     Jul 17, 2018

Does Online Education Help Low-income Students Succeed?

This article is part of the guide: 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching.

From the start, access has been the defining achievement of online learning. Or so I thought.

For a couple of decades, I championed online learning for its ability to uproot entrenched ideas in education, especially by engaging students in active learning, a pedagogical style rarely practiced on campus. But I was even more taken with digital learning’s ability to let underrepresented students leap virtually over high campus gates to earn college degrees as never before.

Then came several new studies concluding that low-income students at U.S. community colleges may not be as well served online as their residential peers. One headline in The New York Times summed-up the findings: “Online Courses Fail Those Who Need Help.”

Reading initial coverage of the research, I worried that virtual access may not be accomplishing all that was it promised. Is online the educational and economic game changer I thought it was?

So I decided to take a close look at a handful of recent studies measuring online against face-to-face at U.S. community colleges. While some showed relatively poor online results, others were not that bad. As has been common since the very first large-scale studies were reported more than ten years ago, blended models—ones that mix and match face-to-face with online—emerged with the strongest outcomes.

Community colleges in the U.S. serve about 11 million students, representing 45 percent of the nation’s college population. Students enrolled in two-year, as compared with four-year schools, look very different, with about 60 percent in community colleges drawn from the bottom two rungs of the most economically disadvantaged families, while most students at four-year colleges are from the country's most financially secure ones—a widely acknowledged disparity.

If you want to learn whether online is good for the nation’s underserved population, studying the effects of virtual instruction at community colleges is a good place to start. After all, chances are students taking these courses are not as well-prepared for college as residential students at four-year colleges, and they are commonly drawn from the most economically-challenged populations.

A recent Columbia University Teachers College study at Washington State Community and Technical Colleges found that students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face classes. The report also showed that in other outcomes, too, online students were not as strong as their residential peers. In contrast—and as was found in many studies—students were equally likely to complete a hybrid course, one that delivers both face-to-face and digital components—as to complete a face-to-face course.

“Students are more likely to graduate if they blend,” remarked Peter Shea, associate provost for online learning at the University of Albany, in a telephone interview. Shea is also editor-in-chief of the Online Learning Journal.

Another finding by the same Columbia team, measuring the Virginia Community College System, uncovered similar results—that students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face classes and were less likely in other ways to do as well as face-to-face learners.

Just as I was most discouraged, I did find some research with a much brighter outlook. Arizona State University concluded that among those who took an online or blended course, retention rates at Houston Community College for first-time freshman was 9 to 10 percentage points higher than in face-to-face students.

Supporting Online Students

As I stepped back and wondered what to conclude, I realized that it’s worth focusing on one piece of the puzzle that can be overlooked: student services.

Student services on campus—study centers, career services, healthcare services, clubs and support for learning and other disabilities, among dozens of other benefits—are widely available on many campuses. But few colleges offer the same expansive attention to remote learners. On campus, students are coddled with high-end services, with 20 percent of higher education budgets going to student services and related costs at state schools and 30 percent at private colleges.

In contrast, virtual student support is often an afterthought. In a literature search I performed while researching this article, I found just a handful of references covering online services, with none quoting how much schools spend on them—a good sign that very little attention is paid and, distressingly, little is invested.

Some colleges hardly consider online services, especially colleges and universities just beginning to think of launching digital instruction programs. Instructional design, technology and faculty participation are investments that must be made, but my own experience bears out that online student services often don’t make the cut. In several programs with which I am familiar, online student services didn’t even make it onto the planning agenda. In one case, when it was finally identified as something that should be addressed, it took months for a special committee to be formed. Regrettably, it met only once and, alarmingly, no action was ever taken.

While remote learners commonly receive fewer services than their residential peers, surely they require more. At their best, online staff hover like helicopter parents, inquiring routinely about what’s happening in their academic and home lives—wondering, for example, why they didn’t post this week on their class forum, why they didn’t log in to take their virtual proctored exam or why they hadn’t enrolled in courses for next semester—inquiries that monitor behavior that is crucial in the long run. Commonly, faculty track academic achievement, but student services help remote students get through their stressful daily lives.

While digital courses give online students access when work and family prevent them from coming to campus, online students confront yet other obstacles—virtual alienation and technical demands for which many are unprepared.

Today, residential students work more than ever to cover steep tuition as well as life’s day-to-day needs, but digital learners don’t enroll as equals. Virtual students are under far more stress, with 70 percent of undergrads and 80 percent of graduate students working full or part time. By contrast, just 25 percent of residential students work full time.

It turns out there are things community colleges as well as the rest of higher education can do, in addition to providing enhanced digital support for remote students. Online learners deserve better—and certainly no less than their richer on-campus peers.

While residential students are often encouraged to enroll in more than two or three classes a semester to speed them through to graduation, that’s a big mistake for virtual learners. At NYU—where I was online vice dean at the engineering school for nearly a decade—we learned very quickly that remote students don’t do well taking more than two courses per semester. Work and family obligations often undermine their studies, leading to a cascade of failures and dropouts.

Making Online Learning Work

It’s in the best interest of economically distressed students that higher education make online learning work; that online students not only toss their mortarboards up in the air at graduation, but go on afterwards to lead solid, productive lives.

Getting a degree seems more urgent than ever in today’s economy—a curious American alchemy that turns a sheepskin into gold and a chance at happiness.

Comparing the lifetime potential earning power of students who graduate from high school to those who earn a bachelor’s degree, a U.S. Census Bureau report calculates that over an adult's working life, a college degree is worth nearly twice a high school diploma—or $2.1 million, compared with $1.2 million. A very cool extra million.

In addition to more money, a college degree yields dramatically meaningful social dividends for graduates—better career opportunities, greater job security, higher work satisfaction, employee benefits. And studies have shown that college completion correlates with other, more subtle psychological and personal effects—deeper self-worth, better health, and not least, greater personal satisfaction.

If virtual education fails to succeed with poor students, then it will merely replicate the severe economic imbalance that is already the shame of the nation’s campuses. Online will merely emerge as yet another luxury product for America’s privileged students.

Better to fix online for underserved students by making sure instructional design is at its best, that online students make reasonable decisions about their course load, and that higher education recognizes its obligation to provide serious, high-touch services for its remote students.

Colleges need to remain as mindful for their online students—if not more supportive—than what it offers its residential students.

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