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Press Release · June 9, 2015

Improving Online Courses at Community Colleges

Systematic Approach Needed—Online Education Initiative Seen as Key Step Forward

SAN FRANCISCO, June 9, 2015—The number of online courses has grown rapidly in California’s community colleges, but students are less likely to complete one successfully than a traditional class. A new PPIC report examines factors that contribute to successful online courses and concludes that a new model for course design and delivery is critical to improving online learning.

Total online course enrollment in the state’s community colleges has reached about 1 million. Yet students overall are about 10 to 14 percentage points less likely to complete an online course successfully than a traditional one, even when differences in student characteristics and other factors are taken into account. The success rates for African American and Hispanic students are significantly lower than those of whites and Asians, widening achievement gaps seen in traditional classes.

The PPIC report analyzes the success of online courses using data from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. The authors consider a course highly successful if at least 70 percent of students pass and student performance is at least as good as in traditional versions of the same course. In addition, students in courses with high passage rates must have good results in subsequent courses in the same subject. The PPIC study looks at credit courses that are taught both online and face-to-face, and those in which more than 25 students enroll in each version of the course. Out of the almost 1,700 courses that meet the study’s criteria, only 11 percent can be considered highly successful.

The authors found no systematic pattern in online course success. The share of courses meeting their definition of success varied substantially within colleges, subjects, and across sections of the same courses. For example, accounting courses had among the highest and lowest success rates. This result is consistent with the finding that the design and delivery of online courses at California’s community colleges has depended pri­marily on the initiative of individual faculty members operating within the constraints and resources of their departments and colleges. The authors did find that courses newly offered online in 2013–14 had higher passage rates than older online courses, suggesting that instructors who have developed new courses have increasingly taken advantage of best practices in online learning.

Based on an extensive review of the academic literature and interviews with faculty and administrators at the community colleges, the PPIC study identified key elements that could make an online course highly successful. Specifically, the authors identified best practices in four areas: course design, faculty support, student orientation, and online course interaction. For example, in terms of course design the PPIC study suggests that a team approach in which faculty members collaborate with administrators, media developers, and information technology experts would improve course success. Bringing together experts with a range of skills that no single instructor is likely to have would help to maximize the online medium’s potential.

“Successful online learning depends on adopting a systematic approach to course design, offering effective faculty support, preparing students to make the most of online learning, and promoting effective interaction among faculty and students,” said Hans Johnson, PPIC Bren and senior fellow and co-author of the report.

The authors cite the community college system’s Online Education Initiative as an important start in improving online education. The initiative is working to incorporate best practices into an online learning program that includes a statewide portal to make online courses available systemwide, a faculty training and certification program, and online support services for students. The initiative has funding through 2017–18.

One of the hopes for online learning is that it will contribute to reduced state higher education costs. But the PPIC study says there is no evidence that online learning is less expensive than face-to-face learning, at least in the short-run. Preparing an online course is usually more time consuming than preparing a traditional one. Moving toward a systematic model of course design would require software programmers, instructional designers, and multimedia specialists—increasing the upfront costs. Other costs include regularly upgrading software, updating course material, and providing students with technical support and online tutoring. In the long-run, it is possible that economies of scale will reduce costs.

But even if online learning is not a cost-saver, it is an important tool for improving access to higher education in California, the report concludes. The demand for online learning is increasing, and the development of new learning technologies provides opportunities that benefit students at all education levels.

The report, Successful Online Courses in California’s Community Colleges, is co-authored by PPIC research associates Marisol Cuellar-Mejia and Kevin Cook. It is supported with funding from the Donald Bren Foundation.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.