Why I Think the New York Times Got It Wrong…

Posted on February 24, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

On February 18, 2013, The New York Times printed an editorial: The Trouble with Online College. The article cited the following problems in online courses:

  1. Attrition rates of close to 90% for MOOCs
  2. Courses “may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students”
  3. Courses “are run by professors who often have little interaction with students” (CCRC research cited for supporting evidence)
  4. Community college students in online courses are significantly more likely to fail or withdraw than those in traditional classes
  5. Low-performing students tend to fall even further behind in online courses
  6. According to a 5-year study of 51,000 students  in Washington State community and technical colleges, students who took a higher proportion of online courses were less likely to earn degrees or transfer
  7. Students “need engagement with their teachers to feel comfortable and to succeed. What they get online is estrangement from the instructor who rarely can get to know them directly.”
  8. Colleges need to improve online courses before they deploy them widely
  9. Colleges with high numbers of students needing remedial education should require students to demonstrate success in traditional classes before allowing them to take online classes
  10. Hybrid classes are great – students performed as well academically in hybrids as those in traditional classes.

This editorial strikes me as having been written by someone who is not familiar with online courses from either the student or instructor perspective. First, I take issue with the title: “online college” is not the same thing as “online courses.” The article does not cite any evidence about students taking fully online programs. Online courses typically supplement face-to-face courses.

To take his arguments in order:

  1. Yes, the attrition rate in MOOCs is high. I myself started two and did not finish. But MOOCs are not the same as courses that students take for credit toward a degree. The reason for taking courses is different, students have the option of going at their own pace (so they may finish – just not in 15 weeks). And MOOCs serve a different audience from the credit courses that community college students take.  (And the rest of the editorial is about community college students).
  2. I don’t know anyone involved in online learning who would disagree with his statement that online courses are inappropriate for struggling students. I can’t imagine any community college advisors encouraging struggling students to take online courses. Now, I could see struggling students self-selecting into online – out of mistaken ideas that the courses will be easier or that they can “hide” their learning issues. That would be the fault of the colleges to allow the wrong students to self-select into the courses – and we should have checks in place to block that.
  3. “Little interaction.” Little interaction? Quality online courses are built around interaction and student engagement. Students engage with their peers, their instructor and, or course, the content of the course – often is ways that are more extensive than in face-to-face classes. There is no hiding in the back of the class staring down at the cell phones in their laps while no one is looking (and, by the way, your instructors are looking and know exactly what is going on).
  4. I agree in part with #4; the data at my college is that students are more likely to withdraw (and instructors are more likely to withdraw students) than in face-to-face courses – although that higher withdrawal rate almost always applies for gen ed electives (required distribution courses that students may or may not have an interest in) and not for courses that students take for their majors (for which their motivation is very different). But our data does not show a higher failure rate. And, on the flip side, the students who do keep up with the work tend to have higher end-of-semester grades than students in the face-to-face courses. That is, more students withdraw (or get withdrawn), but a higher proportion also get As and Bs.
  5. I don’t want to split hairs, but I have to also take issue with #5 – that low-performing students tend to fall even further behind in online courses. In some cases, this is absolutely true – and those students who not have been advised to (or self-advised themselves into) online courses. But to address this generalization, one has to dissect the factors that contribute to a track record of “low performance.” If low performance is due to lack or preparedness (weak reading, writing, or critical thinking abilities) or non-cognitive issues (e.g., issues with time management and self-motivation that lead to procrastination), then yes, those students might be ill-suited for the online learning mode. But if the “low performance” is due to issues such as changes in the students’ job hours or family responsibilities that result in the students missing classes, and therefore doing poorly, then online courses – with all their flexibility – might be the savior for those students.
  6. I have no data from my institution about whether students who take a higher proportion of online courses are less likely to earn degrees or transfer (but this is an interesting data point that I will now pursue). To evaluate the data from Washington State, I would like to know whether it is based on fully online programs vs. programs where students mix f2f and online, whether they allow students with remedial needs to take online courses (my institution does not), and something not likely to be captured in the CCRC data – the quality of the online courses (in terms of presentations of material, engagement, assessment, activities, etc.).
  7. Again, another misconception about student “estrangement from their instructor.” This might be true for a MOOC -which are not designed for instructors to interact individually with 150,000 students. But for 24-person online courses, many faculty report they know their students better than some students in f2f classes who sit in the back, never participate in class discussions, and never some to office hours. In online courses, instructors connect with every student every week – by mid-semester, we know their “voices” (in writing, at least) – and we know a bit about them.
  8. “Colleges need to improve online courses before they deploy them widely.” Generalization much? I would like to know more about the criteria the author has in mind to define quality in online courses- or lack thereof. At my institution, our online courses are high quality – as are many MOOCs. We follow a strict process for developing online courses and use a rubric, based in part on Quality Matters, to ensure the quality of our online courses.
  9. Again – I don’t know anyone who would disagree – online courses are not a fit for remedial students. Period. This is not an issue (so why does the author think he has to argue for it?).
  10. Hybrid classes are great. Yes – and that is why at my institution we are pushing for more and more. But we will still continue to offer fully online courses because for many community college students, online learning is their only path to a degree, a better job, a higher income, and, potentially, a higher quality of life.



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