Necessary Changes to Improve Online Community College Student Performance

Too much of anything can be a bad thing, even if the "anything" in question is convenience. A new study released by the Community College Research Center at the Teachers College at Columbia University found that community college students who took their classes online tended to fail and drop out at a higher rate than those who took their classes in a classroom. But the fault isn’t necessary with the online learning format itself – instead, the issue may lie with the amount of freedom online learners are offered in comparison to classroom learners, and the students’ inability to properly manage that freedom.

Online learning requires students to be immensely self-motivated. Without being immediately surrounded by classmates during every class session, and without a professor directly keeping students on task during lectures, online learners must train themselves to log in at regular intervals, pay attention to their readings, complete and turn in their assignments on time, and study hard – all on their own. This can be difficult for community college students, as they have yet to hone a good study habit outside of high school, and therefore are typically unprepared for the discipline required in online education.

The study found that during the enrollment history of the 51,000 students in Washington between 2004 and 2009, students in an online class only had an 82% chance of completing the class, whereas traditional students had a 90% chance of completion. In addition, students enrolled in remedial classes faced even worse odds, with online students only completing their courses 74% of the time, whereas traditional students completed their courses 85% of the time.

But along with simply lacking the skills it takes to get through a more isolated learning experience, inexperience with technology could be another factor in the lower completion rates for online community college learners. After all, when you are using a computer to do all of your learning, not understanding how to use that technology would prove to be a problem. "People assume this generation is super-technologically sophisticated, but that’s not necessarily true, especially in the community-college population, which tends to be low income, disadvantaged, and includes more older students," Shanna Jaggars, a co-author of the study, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

There is no doubt that the online option for community college is absolutely necessary, as many students need the flexibility that online learning offers them in order to maintain their regular jobs. However, in order to help online students succeed in an educational environment they may not be accustomed to, schools need to make sure that their online programs are as accessible as possible. Community colleges that provide online classes could enact some measures to ensure that those signing up for them are properly trained to use the online platform, whether through in-person tutorial sessions or Internet-based ones. In addition, instructors of online courses could make it a point to check that students are keeping up with their work through regular contact via email or instant messaging. When it comes to fixing the dismal record of academic performance for online students, schools will need to make sure that even distance learners get the same motivation and guidance that campus-based students receive.

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