As tuitions rise and students take longer to complete an
undergraduate degree, the pressure is on higher education leaders
and policymakers to provide a more efficient path to degree for
students. Offering more online courses has been touted as a
A recent UC Davis study comparing community college student
performance in online versus traditional face-to-face instruction
sounds a cautionary note.
In an exhaustive study of student performance in the California
Community College system, the nation’s largest with 2.3 million
students per year, UC Davis education researchers found that
students’ grades and rates of completion are lower in online
courses than for the same courses offered in person. In all, they
studied 217,000 first–time entrants to the community college
system from 2008-09 through 2011-12.
“We found the same pattern of results across all course types,”
said School of Education assistant professor Cassandra Hart, who
conducted the study with education doctoral students Michael Hill
and Elizabeth Friedmann.
Students fared even worse in online formats when taking courses
outside the regular academic calendar and when enrolled in
courses where a relatively low share of students enrolled through
online sections. The researchers also found large gaps for
courses in mathematics and humanities (which include English
language arts). Finally, they found that women face a slightly
larger performance gap than men.
“The consistency of our results is important from a policy
perspective,” says Hart. “Policymakers in California and other
states are interested in exploring whether online courses can be
used to expand instruction and improve outcomes, but there may be
costs to this strategy.”
They suggest that a more formal cost-benefit analysis be done to
see if course non-completion or failure offsets possible cost
savings of online courses. They also make recommendations for
improving outcomes in the short-term, including limiting the
number of online sections offered during the summer; having
faculty implement course policies and practices that would help
them detect student disengagement; and introducing students to
study and time management strategies for online formats.
Hart, Hill and Friedmann present their study at the Annual
Meeting of the American Educational Research Association on
Saturday, April 18, 2015.
Cassandra Hart is an associate professor of education policy. She
evaluates the effects of school, state and national education
programs, policies, and practices on overall student achievement,
and on the equality of student outcomes. Hart’s work has focused
on school choice programs, school accountability
policies, and effects on students of exposure to
demographically similar teachers. She is also interested in the
effects of virtual schooling on student outcomes, both in K-12
and post-secondary settings.