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Community Colleges

Online and Engaged

How to help ensure student success in online courses—despite research pointing to disengagement of distant learners at community colleges
University Business, Feb 2012

At Pitt Community College (N.C.), online learning is about more than just putting in-person course content onto the web. Officials have created a system that emphasizes preparation for students and instructors. The institution will even be launching a certification program for professors wanting to enhance their online teaching skills. “We don’t want online courses to be a barrier to success in any way, for anyone,” says Don Hazelwood, director of instructional technology and distance education. “We all have to work together.” Despite efforts such as these, barriers are common. Studies have found that maintaining engagement in online courses can be especially difficult for community college students. Still, there are ways to help students beat the odds and succeed in distance learning situations.

Roadblocks to Online Learning

A Community College Research Center report released in March 2011 looked at enrollment patterns and academic outcomes in online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses among students enrolled in Washington state community and technical colleges in the fall of 2004. The researchers, Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars of Teachers College, Columbia University, tracked students for nearly five years and found that they were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from those they attended in person.

Also, students who took online coursework in early terms were slightly, but significantly less likely, to return to school in subsequent terms. In contrast, those who took a hybrid course were equally likely to complete the course as those enrolled in a face-to-face course.

The findings were similar to a study done by the Virginia Community College System, which tracked student outcomes over a four-year period, concluding in 2008. Students with stronger academic preparation were more likely to enroll in online courses, but even with that advantage, they were likely to fail or withdraw from online courses compared to face-to-face courses. Students at VCC who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in a subsequent semester, and those who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.

Interpreting the Results

Lumina Foundation for Education funded the Washington state study, with supplementary funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and researcher Jaggars notes that the original intent was to discover whether online learning would increase access for low-income students.

If these types of students don’t have to commute, wouldn’t they be able to perform better since they can devote more time to study and less to travel? “The idea was that they’d progress through school more easily,” says Jaggars. “We weren’t sure if that’s what we’d see in the results, but we certainly didn’t expect the type of negative impact with online courses that ended up being reported.”

Indeed, the researchers noted many advantages for online learning in the report, mentioning the ability for small colleges to offer a wider range of courses, to solve the “available seats” issue in face-to-face courses, and to save on the expenses associated with physical classrooms.

But online coursework may be more difficult for some students to complete, which could inhibit their academic progression and eventual completion, the study noted. Low-income and underprepared students can face challenges including technical difficulties, a sense of social distance and isolation, and limited availability of online student support services. Another issue is a lack of the “high learner control” that may be needed for success in the relatively unstructured and flexible online learning environment.

To help ameliorate these difficulties while still allowing for increased flexibility, some institutions have created hybrid approaches that blend online coursework with face-to-face class meetings. In the study, Jaggars and Xu didn’t find any significant differences between hybrid and in-person completion rates, suggesting that hybrid courses may pose fewer challenges for students. However, they noted, hybrid courses don’t offer the freedom from geographic constraints in the way that an online-only course might.

Following are three areas that can help improve engagement levels of learners in online-only classes.

1. Student preparation

“A lot of students don’t necessarily have the skills they need to succeed in these types of courses,” Jaggars says. “Some just don’t have the technical ability; they get lost and confused and can’t access the coursework or figure out an assignment.” Creating a precourse program that guides students through necessary skills can be invaluable, she adds. Also helpful would be integrating information on self-discipline into that initial instruction, since some students have difficulty with blocking out time to work on assignments. She suggests that course creators build deadlines and other time indicators, such as detailed calendars, into courses. For example, letting students know how long an assignment can be expected to take to complete can help them budget their time more effectively.

2. Tech and Instructional Support

Implementing 24/7 technical support and encouraging more connection between instructors and students can be crucial to online student success, Jaggars says. “Students need to feel connected and supported. They know when they have a face-to-face course that there’s a connection there, and they have support services. But when they’re online, they feel more isolated.” Portland Community College (Ore.), for one, has an online support resource center, which students can access for technical support, discussion groups, and e-tutoring information as needed. In addition, the college has academic advisors who handle only online students.

3. Creative Coursework

Instructors should be creative in developing coursework, Jaggars says. A common complaint she heard during her research was that students felt like all they did was read constantly. The courses with the highest success rates in the study contained content, such as music or videos, which allowed students to learn through a number of different elements.

Pitt Community College is one institution where students are likely to encounter content in various formats. Instructors there receive eight hours of online course-creation training that demonstrates the uses of several multimedia components.

Through the Iowa Community College Online Consortium, instructors of member institutions receive training in how to build relationships and stay connected to students. Online, threaded conversations allow students to chat with each other and instructors as soon as a course begins.

Better Outcomes

Online education may well have a long way to go before outcomes and student engagement match that of in-person courses, but with stronger strategies and more attention to courses, preparation, and follow-up, it’s likely this type of learning can progress quickly. “There’s so much you can do to make online learning an effective part of a student’s experience,” says Hazelwood. And if everyone works together, “you can make big, meaningful changes.”

Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who has covered distance learning for University Business.