The Communicy College Research Center recently released a new study, "Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas". It's another cut at a pool of data from the Washington State Community and Technical College system.
Not like I'm the only one doing this, but the headline conclusion could use some qualification.
About that data
First, some thoughts about the raw data. It has some challenges. While I can support the compromises made by the authors, as they would not otherwise have been able to push through an analysis, it would be wise for readers and policy makers to bear these issues in mind.
It's limited to transfer classes, which are taken by students completing the first two years of college. While it's possible the applicability to professional/technical (occupational) programs and students is similar, this should be done with caution, and ideally some statistical analysis.
Data were drawn from 2004-2008. We probably don't know a tremendous amount more than we did then in terms of good teaching practice. (We actually knew quite a bit!) That knowledge has, to some degree, been backed up by research. More importantly, to borrow from William Gibson, that knowledge is better distributed now than it was. Five years is a very, very long time in the online world.
Definitions of online and hybrid courses were in flux within the system during that time. Colleges used different definitions to describe online classes, and shall we say, enthusiasm for rigorous coding was limited.
Of results and known issues
A common, (and in my opinion valid) criticism of many "online learning yields poor results" studies is that they rarely consider that our face-to-face courses are often nothing to crow about. As the authors note:
Overall, the research on the impact of student characteristics on online success indicates that patterns of performance in online courses mirror those seen in postsecondary education overall...(page 4)
The comprehensive nature of the analysis (and the broad-based 2011 study) mitigates these limits, to some extent. However, the researchers occasionally fall back into the trap of comparing modes without referencing the larger context.
For instance, the study notes that students in English and Mass Communication attracted a higher proportion of less adaptable students (page 24). It would be fascinating to compare the concept of adaptability in face-to-face courses as well. English is anomalous in the college in that every single degree-seeking student takes that class. So does the result seen in this study stem from mode or from a much different population? And how does that population do across modes?
The concept of adaptability is a great approach into an important area of study (and practice) in the elearning world. At the time this data was gathered, few instructors and fewer students had deep experience with online learning. Particularly in the early years of this study, only a small demographic subset of the country was comfortable online for anything more robust than buying books and finding dates.
So it's not one bit surprising to see populations that struggle in face-to-face classes struggling in online classes. Old-school media richness theory would certainly support that conclusion: as students struggle, the reduced richness of the online environment prevents a) students from finding help and b) instructors from being aware of a problem. Few practictioners would claim otherwise.
But we're left with two critical questions:
- What is it like now?
- How does adaptability impact face-to-face courses?
What about the rest of the college
The results from English courses might provide some insight into applying this research across the community college. These courses showed similar impacts to the broader study in terms of reduced persistence and grades (page 20). They stood out for the negative peer effects: students were less likely to find adaptability skills from their peers.
Because English is taught to both professional/technical (occupational) students and university transfer students, it's possible that similar results might be found in professional classes. It might, however, be countered by the older student base often found in prof-tech degree programs. As the CCRC study found, older students are often better able to adapt.
It's not about mode
We know that many students struggle with adjusting to college, regardless of mode. We know that adaptability is often predicated on past family experience with college, on income, on race. We suspected (and now have some dated, but statistically significant results) that these problems are worse in online courses.
What we also know is that if it takes longer for a student to complete a developmental sequence, or get enrolled in a course they need to graduate, then they are less likely to complete. Momentum matters. Perhaps the most fertile ground for discussion is encapsulated in this quote:
... older students may be willing to trade the ability to take an additional course for slightly poorer performance in that course (page 23).
Given what we know about the relationship between time and retention, we have to include this balancing act in discussions about the appropriate use of online courses in our institutional strategy.
Absolutely, we need to provide better support for students and faculty as they learn to operate in online courses. We need to do that for all students. And in many community colleges, there are activities toward that end.
But it's time to move past the headline grabbing arguments about better or worse. It's time to focus on what gets the student to their goals.