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Fulfilling the Promise of Online Education

Online learning has become a topic of great debate in higher education. Its advocates have high hopes that it will expand opportunities and rein in costs. Policymakers in Sacramento have taken note. The new state budget provides tens of millions of dollars to support online learning.

When most people think of on online education, they think of MOOCs—massive open online courses—which provide free access to classes taught by faculty from the nation’s top universities. MOOCs have garnered headlines and been the subject of much debate about their potential to reinvent higher education. Meanwhile, California’s community colleges have quietly created an extensive set of offerings in online education. They now provide more online credit courses than any other public higher education institution in the country—a testament to the community colleges’ willingness and ability to innovate.

Enrollment has soared from just a few thousand students a dozen years ago. By 2012, online course enrollment in the state’s community colleges totaled almost one million, representing about 11 percent of total enrollment. Among students taking credit courses in 2011–12, one of every five took at least one online course. Indeed, practically all of the community college enrollment increases over the past ten years have occurred in online courses.

The Public Policy Institute of California has completed an analysis of student success in these courses that points out both the opportunities and challenges in providing online education. We found that online courses are providing some students with an important and useful tool that helps them achieve their community college goals. For example, students who take at least one online course are more likely to earn a degree, transfer to a four-year college, or earn a certificate than students who take only traditional courses.

But there are significant problems. First, the digital divide is evident. Latino students are less likely than students from other ethnic groups to take online courses. Moreover, the achievement gap is exacerbated in online settings. African Americans and Latinos have lower success rates in traditional classes than Asians and whites, and the achievement gaps are even wider in online courses.

And finally, even though online students tend to be stronger academically, they are less likely to successfully complete online courses than traditional courses. This lower course success rate is true across all types of students, a wide set of subjects, and almost all colleges. Indeed, once we controlled for student characteristics—such as overall grade point averages and other factors such as colleges and course subject—students are at least 11 percentage points and as many as 14 points less likely to successfully complete an online course than otherwise similar students in traditional format classes.

California’s community colleges need both more information and a more strategic approach before online learning can fulfill its promise. Little is known about the cost of developing and providing online courses. We won’t know if online learning is less expensive than traditional course work—as some of its advocates believe—unless we begin to systematically collect cost information.

The colleges won’t be able to improve outcomes for the rich diversity of their students unless they take a number of steps. They need to evaluate the online courses being taught now, identify the most successful instructional and technological approaches, and provide professional development for faculty to create and deliver high-quality online learning. They need to provide services for online students to help improve success rates. And they can use the power of technology to track students’ progress in detail, and offer instruction that is more targeted and customized.

Once high quality courses are identified and developed, it will be a challenge to ensure that those courses are readily available to students across California’s vast community college system. The community college’s Online Education Initiative is an important step in the right direction. Its goals are consistent with our recommendations to identify best practices and implement them widely. Its success will depend on identifying and implementing effective policies and programs that improve student outcomes. Going forward, a strong strategic approach will help California to make the most of its investments in online learning.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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