February 25, 2013 - 3:00am
Online education is often held out as a way to increase access to higher education, especially for those -- adult students, the academically underprepared, members of some minority groups -- who have historically been underrepresented in college. But that access is meaningful only if it leads somewhere, and if the education students get helps them reach their goals. New data from a long-term study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College suggest that some of the students most often targeted in online learning's access mission are less likely than their peers to benefit from -- and may in fact be hurt by -- digital as opposed to face-to-face instruction. The study did not, however, account for the quality of the online courses studied, making it difficult to draw from its findings overly sweeping generalizations about the efficacy of online learning. The working paper, "Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas," by Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars, researchers at the center, expands on work from 2011 that found that students who enrolled in online courses -- controlling for various factors that tend to predict success -- were more likely to fail or drop out of the courses than were those who took the same courses in person. Notably, there was not a gap in completion between those enrolled in hybrid and in-person courses. The new study is a follow-up prompted by questions from officials at the Washington State Community/Technical College System whose courses were examined. (The study examined the performance of 40,000 students in about 500,000 online courses.) "They asked us, 'So who? Is it all students who fare less well, or certain subgroups?' ” said Jaggars. The answer is that virtually every group of students fared less well (defined by the number of course credits they completed, and/or by...