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Education Featured Article

February 21, 2013

Online Universities: Innovative Learning or 'Academic Crack?'

By Jacqueline Lee, Contributing Writer

The New York Times published an editorial on February 18, listing some disturbing information about student performance in online courses.

According to research from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center (CCRC), students who take a larger proportion of online courses are less likely to earn degrees or transfer to four-year colleges.

Also, community college students in online courses are significantly more likely to either fail or withdraw from courses. The Chronicle for Higher Education also released information stating that dropout rates for online courses are 20 to 50 percent higher than dropout rates in traditional courses.

Students needing remediation tended to suffer the most. The editorial stated that colleges should require students who need remedial courses in math and English to prove that they can succeed in traditional classrooms before allowing them to take online classes.

The piece also stated that students need engagement with each other and the instructor, not estrangement from a professor who has little opportunity to interact with them directly.

Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of Columbia’s CCRC, recently published an article in the Handbook of Distance Education, stating that student characteristics weren’t the only factors influencing poor performance. She argues that technical difficulties, a lack of structure, a lack of support and feelings of isolation inherent to online classes may set students up to fail.

In response to the Times editorial, a professor only identified as “tr” commented that online courses give administrators the opportunity to educate students on the cheaper side.

“Unfortunately, these courses are academic crack to university administrators. They can charge the same tuition, but not have to pay for niceties such as classrooms, libraries, laboratories, etc.,” said the commenter.

Hybrid courses involving both online and traditional elements show promise, but few schools are willing to invest the time and money required to teach old professors new tricks.

Learning is about a lot more than transferring knowledge. Students need to feel confident about their ability to use knowledge, points out David Hawthorne, senior vice president of learning environments for NYUonline.

In other words, students have to be capable of applying knowledge during situations in which they may be judged. Unfortunately, without hands-on experience or live interaction with students and instructors, students may be able to regurgitate facts without actually knowing what they’re doing.

If this is true, students who finish online coursework may not be as qualified as graduates of traditional programs. Maybe online education isn’t such a bargain after all.

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