Distance learning is one of the national rallying cries of Republican politicians and state education officials seeking cheap ways to graduate more students attending public colleges. Community colleges, the old doormats of postsecondary learning that were founded on the sensible notion that anybody who wants an education should be able to get one, are major players in this Web-based instruction movement.
Economists and social scientists know that if the United States intends to remain an economic leader internationally, a much larger portion of the work force must be educated, including citizens who traditionally have been shunned by colleges: low-income students, working adults, select minorities and those who need remediation before they can tackle college-level work.
Here is where community colleges come in. They enroll more students than their four-year counterparts. As such, many politicians, with the support of community college presidents and state officials, see these schools as ideal, cost-effective places to boost online learning.
Besides saving the colleges money, online courses reduce scheduling conflicts for students with families and jobs and other commitments. But, according to a recent study released by the Community College Research Center at the Teachers College at Columbia University, Web-based instruction is not the magic bullet for educating more community college students. The research found, in fact, that community college students in online courses fail and drop out more often than students in classroom-based courses.
Researchers followed the academic history of 51,000 students in the state of Washington between 2004 and 2009 and found an 8 percent gap in completion rates between students in distance courses and those in face-to-face courses. Two other troubling findings of the study were that students with online credits did not graduate or transfer to four-year schools as often as those enrolled in traditional coursework, and those in online remedial courses fared far worse than remedial students in face-to-face courses.
A second study, conducted for the Virginia community college system, found similar gaps between students in distance courses and those in traditional courses.
Postsecondary online courses are here to stay and will play an increasingly critical role in educating a competitive U.S. work force of people who will demand a lot of flexibility. But community colleges should not succumb to the lure of increased funding only to implement slipshod efforts that ill serve their students. While they are increasing their online offerings, community colleges must make student success in these courses a priority.
The very idea of the community college, open enrollment to residents with a high school diploma or its equivalent, sets many students up for failure. Add to that the enticement of distance learning — never having to leave home to take courses — and we get immature students who are in over their heads from the beginning.
What should community colleges do to improve online learning? The Virginia study suggests, among other strategies:
• Students should be tested for their preparedness for online instruction.
• Online students should be given a dose of reality about time management. They need to be taught from the outset that while working at home with the family around can be advantageous, it can become a trap.
• Students need to be trained to navigate the online course-related computer systems necessary to complete their coursework.
• Faculty members should be trained for online instruction so that they can competently guide their students.
• Colleges should improve support services, offering, for example, 24/7 online tutoring.
As the studies show, distance learning is not a panacea for graduating more community college students. But if it is done effectively, it will become an essential part of sustaining the nation's economic viability in the world.