Factors Contributing To Online Course Completion Among African American Male Undergraduate Students
Concurrent Session 4
A phenomenological study investigated factors that promoted online course completion among African American male undergraduate students. Factors of online course completion were financial assistance, prior academic achievement, previous information technology (IT) training, continuous academic enrollment, less demanding online subject content, use of handheld digital devices, and non-prejudicial learning environment.
Higher education is often described as a public good that brings with it positive societal outcomes such as increased community engagement and cooperation, reduced poverty, and decreased crime rates (Kezar, Chambers, & Burkhardt, 2005). Indeed, Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, exclaimed, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world…,” during his 2003 speech at University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (“Lighting your way,” 2015). In recent years, higher education has become increasingly accessible with the advent of online learning (Allen, Seaman, Poulin, & Straut, 2016; McCoy, 2012), and most chief academic officers have indicated substantial use of online education in the future (Allen & Seaman, 2014). However, some students are underperforming in college and university online courses, suggesting that proliferation of online learning may hinder their academic progress. Identified online underperformers include low-income students (Jaggars & Bailey, 2010), academically underprepared students (Figlio, Rush, & Yin, 2013; Jaggars & Bailey, 2010), students with lower prior GPAs (Cochran, Campbell, Baker, & Leeds, 2013; Figlio et al., 2013; Xu & Jaggars, 2014); male students (Figlio et al., 2013; Xu & Jaggars, 2014), and African American students (Xu & Jaggars, 2014).
At the same time, there is a concern that African American males are an endangered species in higher education (Gilkey, 2012; Jackson, 2014; Washington, 2013). In fact, Dyce (2013) indicated that lack of participation among African American males is the most important issue facing American higher education today. African American males experience the poorest educational outcomes compared with other demographic groups (Palmer, Davis, Moore, & Hilton, 2010), and, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (2015), African American males had the second lowest completion rates for a bachelor’s or higher degree in the United States at 17% (Hispanic males had the lowest completion rates at 13%). In addition, there is a demographic shift occurring with African American, Hispanic, and Asian populations, and they are expected to increase to approximately half of the total U.S. population by 2050 (Ortman & Guarneri, 2009). With upcoming changes in demographics, combined with growth in online education and attrition among African American males, it is increasingly important to ensure that African American males are prepared to serve as future contributing societal members through scholarly pursuits and academic attainment (Palmer et al., 2010).
There is an absence of research examining factors that promote online course completion rates among African American males in higher education. In fact, no studies were found. Most studies that investigated African American online students used population samples, with the majority being female (Flowers, Flowers, Flowers, & Moore, 2014; Merrills, 2010; Stanley, 2014). There are two studies that investigated African American male online learners enrolled in high school (Corey & Bower, 2005; McCoy, 2012). Tucker (2014) studied males of color taking online courses in a predominantly White community college, but less than 10% of participants were African American.
Clearly, there is a gap in the research that investigates why some African American male college students complete online courses while most fail, with little to no attention paid to factors such as a student’s socioeconomic status, academic factors, and previous experiences with technology. A deeper understanding is needed of the backgrounds, competencies, and experiences of successful African American online learners to identify factors that may predict or influence online course completion and academic achievement (Merrills, 2010; Parker, 2016; Tucker, 2014). Results of this study could help administrators and instructors create or strengthen programs that promote online course persistence and improve college graduation rates for African American males. Study results may also provide an impetus and direction for expanding online programs among underserved populations, as well as fill in a gap in the literature in the field of online education.
In addition, there is a current interest to improve online learning outcomes so all students can succeed in online courses (James, Swan, & Daston, 2016). Scholars are calling for research that improves educational outcomes for African Americans in general, and African American males in particular, and to investigate economic (Lobaina, 2016; Merrills, 2010; Tucker, 2014), academic (Parker, 2016), and technologic factors (Tucker, 2014). Furthermore, scholars are requesting investigations using qualitative methods (Ashong & Commander, 2012; Merrills, 2010; Tucker, 2014). For these reasons, this study was conducted and findings presented to help create the least restrictive environment for underperforming African American males so they can enjoy the benefits of higher education (Bambara, Harbour, Davies, & Athey, 2009; Palmer et al., 2010).
While online course enrollment in higher education has grown in recent years, (Allen et al., 2016), so have dropout rates, which are higher in online courses compared with onsite courses (Romero & Usart, 2014; Xu & Jaggars, 2014). Conflicting information exists between scholars regarding student learning outcomes, with Russell (2001) finding no significant difference between face-to-face and distance learning and Jaggars and Bailey (2010) finding a significant difference, especially among low-income and academically underprepared online learners. African American male students are particularly at risk for academic harm caused by the proliferation of online learning in higher education because of increased poverty (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015; United States Census Bureau, 2015), inferior academic preparation (Institute for Higher Educational Policy, 2010), inadequate reading skills (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016a), less access to home computers (Rovai, 2007), and limited access to current technologies including the Internet (Collins, 2014; McCoy, 2012). In addition, the U.S. Department of Education (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011) reported that African Americans are more likely than any other demographic group to take their entire undergraduate program online.
Problem, Purpose and Research Questions
Xu and Jaggars (2014) asserted that African American males are being excluded from educational opportunities by not completing online courses. Research on the problem of academic underachievement in online courses among college students is needed so we can provide underserved populations the resources they need to persist and complete online courses (McGivney, 2009). As stated previously, there is a deficit in the research investigating online course completion among African American males in higher education, with populations largely being female (Flowers et al., 2014; Merrills, 2010; Stanley, 2014), male high school students (Corey & Bower, 2005; McCoy, 2012), or total population percentages of African American males at less than 10% (Tucker, 2014), indicating that African American males are underrepresented in the current body of knowledge regarding online course persistence (McGivney, 2009). This study investigated successful African American male online learners and identified factors that contributed to online course completion. To address the gap in current knowledge, ten African American males were purposively selected and were qualitatively investigated to identify factors that contributed to successful online course completion.
The purpose of this phenomenological study was to identify factors associated with online course completion among African American male undergraduate students. A qualitative method was used to uncover reasons why these students had great outcomes, while many others fail, with a specific focus on economic, academic, and technologic factors that may have influenced their online learning success. The following questions guided the study:
1. What economic factors are common among African American male undergraduate students who completed online courses?
2. What technologic experiences are common among African American male undergraduate students who completed online courses?
3. What academic factors are common among African American male undergraduate students who completed online courses?
4. What challenges or obstacles did African American male undergraduate students who completed online courses encounter?
A phenomenological study was used to investigate factors that promoted online course completion among African American male undergraduate students. This investigation was important due to the current problem of academic underachievement in online courses among African American males. Ten males were interviewed with significant statements and themes identified. Factors that contributed to online course completion among African American male undergraduate students in this study were financial assistance, prior academic achievement, previous information technology (IT) training, continuous academic enrollment, online subject content perceived as less demanding or familiar due to prior knowledge, use of handheld digital devices, and a non-prejudicial learning environment. Policymakers, administrators, and practitioners must promote academic success among African American male high school students, ensure that smartphones can be used to access course materials and complete most assignments, and provide immediate assistance and multimodal instruction when needed.