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Does Online Learning Help Community College Students Attain a Degree?

Peter Shea (University at Albany, USA)
Session Information
November 21, 2013 - 1:15pm
Learning Effectiveness
Areas of Special Interest: 
None of the above
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Featured Session
Southern Hemisphere 1
Session Duration: 
80 Minutes
Information Session 9 & 10 (combined)
Virtual Session

This session reports on new study of online students in community colleges. Using a nationally representative sample from the Beginning Post Secondary Student Survey, we analyzed course taking patterns and conclude that community college students who enroll in some online courses have a small but significantly better chance of attaining a college credential than their classroom-only counterparts. Implications for policy and practice will be discussed.

Extended Abstract

Using recent data from the US Department of Education's 2009 Beginning Post Secondary Student Survey this study initially concludes that students enrolled in internet-based distance education courses and programs completed associate degrees at significantly higher rates than those who were not enrolled in such courses. Students who enrolled in other forms of distance education did not see the same benefits in terms of degree completion.

Numerous recent reports have complained that the United States is not producing sufficient numbers of college graduates and is thereby losing competitive advantage in the global economy (Hebel, 2006; Kelderman, 2013). These worries are magnified when the subject of investigation is the community college where completion rates are historically lower than in baccalaureate institutions (Goldrick-Rabb, 2009). With six year national completion rates of less than 20%, justifiably or not,Community Colleges have been the target of a great deal of criticism. This is particularly concerning given that national policy commentators have concluded thatCommunity Colleges are crucial to supporting the US economy (College Board, 2008). Furthermore, spending on community college students has had a particularly poor return with regard to degree attainment. For example, the Delta project (Kirshtein & Wellman, 2012)) concluded that "nearly half of instructional spending inCommunity Colleges goes to students (and credits) that do not attach to a degree or certificate (p. 16)."

While MOOCs have gained tremendous media attention recently, what can now be referred to as "traditional" online education has never really taken center stage to the same extent. This is somewhat curious given the growing concerns about the decline in college attendance and completion in the US and the benefits that college completion confers. Although MOOCs do often feature the faculty of Ivy League colleges, and have reached an audience in the millions, their existence has done little to generate college credit that might begin to ameliorate the problems of shrinking US degree attainment. But what about traditional online learning, has this alternative path to higher education made a difference?

Growth in Traditional Online Education
The Babson Survey research group has tracked traditional online education for a decade and recently contrasted it with other forms (Allen & Seaman, 2013). Compared with MOOCs, traditional online education utilizes much smaller class sizes and thus can support more direct student-instructor interaction. It is typically and increasingly asynchronous (National Center for Education Statistics), meaning that while conducted online during an academic term, regular synchronous class meeting days and times are not scheduled. Discussion and interaction unfold through discussion boards and other asynchronous tools. Course assignments typically have due dates and courses schedules frequently follow the academic terms of the classroom.

This form of traditional credit bearing online education has seen tremendous growth in the last decade. Current estimates indicate that one in three of every college student in the US is enrolled in at least one online course (Allen & Seaman, 2013). This equates to a more than six million college students yearly nationwide. The growth rate of credit-bearing online course enrollments has been roughly ten times the growth rate of US higher education generally (ref). In the most recent year for which data is available online learning grew at over 9% while higher education generally saw a decline in enrollments (Allen & Seaman, 2013).

The relatively recent rise of internet-based forms of distance education has generated concerns that mirror those that have long attended distance education more generally. Before critics of MOOCs have complained about attrition rates of 90% and the difficulty of learning in online courses of 100,000 students, concerns about learning in the absence of face-to-face interaction more generally were prominent. While large scale research into learning in MOOCs has not yet occurred, several meta-analytic and traditional reviews of the literature have concluded that learning outcomes between classroom-based and traditional credit-bearing online environments are equivalent (Bernard et. al, 2004; Bernard et. al. 2009; Means et. al. 2009). In fact, more recent reviews have begun to suggest that credit-bearing online college courses, with typical class sizes of 20-40 may actually produce slightly better outcomes (Means et. al, 2009; Zhao et. al. 2005).

Bernard and his colleagues (2010 ALN conference) suggest that a number of recent meta-analyses of traditional online learning conclude that the direction of the advantage is the same (online learning is better) and the small effect size is highly stable (ES .12-.15 across four meta-analyses). Recent research on perceptions of higher education nationwide support these findings with approximately 70% of US Academic Vice Presidents reporting that learning outcomes in online courses are as good or better than equivalent classroom based courses (Allen & Seaman, 2013). So, it would seem that at least some of the concerns about the quality of traditional, credit bearing online education have been addressed. A crucial question, one that is not addressed in these reviews of the literature on online learning is: has online education made a difference in degree attainment? One could argue that the rapid growth rates alone in this modality indicate that more learners are gaining access to credit bearing higher education, but does this access produce a more productive outcome in terms of degree attainment? Do online community college students persist in college at higher rates? Do they complete degrees at higher rates or more quickly?

Using recent data from the US Department of Education's 2009 Beginning Post Secondary Student Survey this study initially concludes that students enrolled in internet-based distance education courses and programs completed associate degrees at significantly higher rates than those who were not enrolled in such courses. Students who enrolled in other forms of distance education did not see the same benefits in terms of degree completion.

Data analysis on these questions will be completed in July 2013 and this presentation will be an early release of findings, conclusions, and recommendations. This is the first national study on these questions and this presentation will provide new insights on the relationship between traditional online learning and community college attrition, persistence, and degree attainment.

Lead Presenter
Peter Shea

Peter Shea (University at Albany, USA)

Dr. Peter Shea is Associate Professor of Education with a joint appointment in the College of Computing and Information at the University at Albany, SUNY. His research focuses on technology-mediated teaching and learning in higher education. He is the author of more than 50 articles, book chapters, and other publications on the topic of online learning and co-author of the book "The Successful Distance Learning Student”. He has overseen more than $2 million in external funding for his recent research with significant support from the US Department of Education, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the New York State Department of Education.

Previously Dr. Shea was the Director of the SUNY Learning Network, the online education system for the 64 colleges of the State University of New York. In that role he led a team responsible for faculty development, student support, and technology infrastructure for the state-wide system serving more than 100,000 online enrollments per year. Dr. Shea has also served as manager of the SUNY Teaching, Learning, and Technology Program and Project Director for SUNY's participation in the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching.

He is a recipient or co-recipient of several national awards and honors including the EDUCAUSE Award for Systemic Progress in Teaching and Learning for the State University of New York, and Sloan Consortium Awards for Excellence in Faculty Development and Asynchronous Learning Networks Programs. He was named a Sloan-C Fellow in 2011.