A recent article at Raw Story (RS) contained the alarmist headline, “Research shows everyone does worse with online learning.” The article goes on to cite a new study by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University that states uncategorically, at least according to RS, “students tended to perform worse academically in online classes — suggesting that students had ‘difficulty adapting’ to online learning. Perhaps even more startling, students of color and men fared the worst.” (Emphases mine.)
I am a professor in a large state university that is one of the behemoths of high quality online education, I know, both from personal experience teaching there for over a decade and from the large number of studies that have been done, that are being done, and that will be done, that the following is true:
1) Raw Story’s headline is an example of the sort of “journalism” that misrepresents the research of academics both in its “attention grabber” tactics and in the lack of clarity/understanding of the research it reports upon and its implications/applications to populations other than those intended that, sadly, riddles the 4th Estate in these confused times we know as the Information Age;
2) CCRC’s research study focuses on a specific group of students and their experience and success/problems with E-Learning. Any responsible academic (and I have no doubt that a research center associated with Columbia University would be responsible) would offer caveats abounding concerning this research study and its applicability to any population beyond the scope of its research.
Let’s examine the second of these first, since there’s no need to misrepresent CCRC or Columbia more than RS has already done.
CCRC’s self described mission is as follows: “CCRC strategically assesses the problems and performance of community colleges in order to contribute to the development of practice and policy that expands access to higher education and promotes success for all students.” (Again, emphases mine.)
This is a well narrowed and clear vision statement for what CCRC is about: they focus solely on research about community colleges – not 4 year colleges, not universities, not K-12 education either public or private. Further: CCRC focuses on expanded access to higher education (a central mission of the community colleges).
Let’s take a moment for some explanation. The word “access” used in the context of higher education means this: students are allowed to matriculate (enter, for the jargon deficient) a school and attempt to complete a degree in a field of their choice. This does not guarantee that they will complete a degree – that notion of higher education comes from the infiltration of higher ed in the last 30 years or so by “business think”: the commodification of education has misled students into thinking that a degree is like any product: something that is obtained by plunking down one’s money. Somehow, getting educated by simply paying some money and attending some classes has come to be thought of in the same way, say, as one might think of joining a gym. Expecting to look like an aerobics instructor or professional athlete simply because one paid for a gym membership is just as unrealistic. Access means that one gets to come and study and work toward that goal of a degree – if one doesn’t/can’t complete the academic work for a degree, no degree will be forthcoming, just as if one goes to the gym and doesn’t/can’t work out, that aerobics instructor physique will not be forthcoming. All (or nearly all, there may be exceptions) community colleges are “open access” – no one is screened out of the acceptable student pool – filling out an application for admission guarantees admission to study. Columbia University, where CCRC is located, on the other hand, is “very highly selective,” to use more jargon of the higher ed world: student applications are rigorously screened and only students of exceptional ability are allowed admission. As anyone would/should expect, the success rate for course/degree completion for Columbia is astronomically higher than for the typical community college.
All this is to state what should be obvious: CCRC’s examination of online course success at community colleges has to be understood given the parameters of community college student academic abilities. Community colleges accept students who have a range of academic ability and preparation ranging from very good to nearly nonexistent (with the majority, sadly, in or near the latter grouping rather than the former). This factor alone would account for a larger “lack of adaptability to online courses among community college students – many, nay most, of them have had little success in face to face courses. To add a layer of complication (which online learning naturally does: one does, after all, have to possess some technological skills simply to get into an online classroom, much less complete work there) exacerbates student learning problems. For disadvantaged students, this extra layer of complexity in the learning environment would almost certainly make success in online classes more problematic. I suspect CCRC’s researchers would have readily noted this – had they been asked by Raw Story’s reporter.
And therein lies the rub for Raw Story: for their reporter to extrapolate from a single study of a clearly, narrowly defined population to the general population is irresponsible reporting. As an academic (and something of a cynic) I have long since given up hope that journalists would engage in the focused research necessary for them to report on an academic study and explain its context and limitations in any useful way for readers. What RS wants is eyeballs on their web site to make advertisers happy and money for their business. That, in this case, led to reckless exaggeration.
A brief bit of simple Google research yielded the following for me as I prepared for writing this piece: a meta-study of 12 years worth of studies (over 50 of them!) of the various areas of online teaching and learning that concludes that overall, students do better in online classes than in f2f courses; a long list of scholarly journals researching and assessing online educational practices in nearly every field imaginable whose goal is simple:to improve the online learning and teaching experience and help students and faculty be ever more successful; an article (in of all places, Forbes) debunking negative myths about online learning; finally, a study by the US Department of Education on the advantages and disadvantages of developing online learning for K-12 students.
What these studies would have allowed Raw Story to do was present a thoughtful, nuanced report on the benefits and problems of online education for different populations that would have given readers a sense of what the landscape of E-Learning is, who the players are (and what their motives might be), and how online education might impact their lives and the lives of their families, friends, and colleagues. In that the 4th Estate would be doing its job: creating a knowledgeable, informed citizenry capable of making wise decisions about the incredibly important institution we call education.
Instead, we got a nearly useless piece of alarmist fluff that creates more Yahoos instead of developing more Houyhnhnms.
Yahoos? Houyhnhnms? You don’t know what those are?
Perhaps you should sign up for a course at my university – we can teach you all about them.