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Calif. Community-College Students Fare Less Well in Online Courses

While the use of online courses is increasingly widespread in California’s community colleges, the success rate of students in the courses lags behind that of their peers taking in-person courses, according to a report released on Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank that focuses on the state’s public programs.

The report, “Online Learning and Student Outcomes in California’s Community Colleges,” says online-course enrollment reached close to one million in the 2010-11 academic year, up from 114,000 in 2002-3. Almost 530,000 California community-college students enrolled in online courses during 2011-12, nearly 20 percent of all students taking credit courses, the report says.

The institute’s researchers found that students were less likely to complete online courses than traditional courses, and were less likely to complete online courses with passing grades. But when it comes to long-term impact, measured by the likelihood of students’ earning degrees or transferring to four-year-colleges, those who combined traditional and online courses were more successful than those who took face-to-face courses alone.

According to the report, in 2011-12, 79.4 percent of students completed online courses they started, compared with 85.9 percent of students completing traditional courses. The findings are based on student and course data collected from the 112 community colleges in California.

Researchers also measured the success rate of the students taking online courses, defined as the percentage of students who completed courses with passing grades. During the 2011-12 academic year, only 60.4 percent of students achieved passing grades in their online courses, while the success rate in traditional courses was 70.6 percent.

Disparities in success were higher among some groups, including students age 24 and younger, students with lower levels of academic skill, part-time students, male students, Latinos, and African-Americans.

Researchers found that the online-performance gap—how much more poorly students fared when taking online courses instead of traditional ones—was highest among Latino and African-American students, who had gaps of 15.9 and 17.9 percentage points, respectively. Asian and white students fared better, with gaps of 10.6 and 13.6 percentage points, respectively.

As for long-term success, the report says that students who mixed traditional and online courses were more likely to follow paths toward earning a degree or transferring to four-year colleges.

The long-term-success rate “does offer some kind of optimism,” the report says. With strategic planning, improved technology, and increased funding, online learning can become more effective, it says.

“Because the community colleges are such an important access point for groups underrepresented in higher education,” the report says, “the role of online courses in contributing to or alleviating achievement gaps is critical.”

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