Online Course Taking and Student Success

Concurrent Session 4

Brief Abstract

This presentation reports on research which investigated relationships between online course taking and four student success outcomes -- course withdrawals, GPA, retention, completion – for 719,070 bachelor degree, associate degree and certificate seeking students enrolled at institutions throughout the US with a particular focus on minorities and Pell recipients.

Presenters

Premiere online scholar and James Stuckle professor, University of Illinois Southern; OLC Fellow and Outstanding Achievement Award in Online Learning; member of IACEHOF and significant role in development and dissemination of the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework. Karen Swan is the James J. Stukel Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership and a Research Associate in the Center for Online Learning, Research, & Service (COLRS) at the University of Illinois Springfield. Karen’s research has been in the general area of electronic media and learning for the 25 years since she received her doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. For the past 20 years, she has been teaching online, researching online learning, and writing extensively about her experiences. She received the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) award for Outstanding Individual Achievement, National University Technology Network (NUTN) Distinguished Service Award, and the Burks Oakley II Distinguished Online Teaching Award for her work in this area. She is also an OLC Fellow and a member of the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame. In 2010 she also was given the Distinguished Alumni award by her alma mater.

Additional Authors

Scott is a Data Scientist with a strong interest in utilizing analytics and statistical methodologies to enhance decision making and drive policy changes in higher education. Scott currently works for PAR Framework, a division of Hobsons, where he builds predictive models, develops visual representations of data, and tackles cross-institutional research questions for partner institutions.

Extended Abstract

This presentation will report on research which investigated relationships between online course taking and four student success outcomes -- course withdrawals, GPA, retention, completion – for bachelor degree, associate degree and certificate seeking students enrolled at institutions throughout the US.

CONTEXT

The data used for this study comes from bachelor degree, associate degree, and certificate seeking students who began taking courses between Fall 2009 and Fall 2015.  These three degree levels were investigated as three separate data sets. The sample for bachelors students included 353,462 students from 21 universities. A subset consisting of 145,739 students was used to measure 6-year completion rates for bachelor degree seeking students. The sample for associate degree seeking students was comprised of 313,887 students from 32 colleges and universities. The subset of the sample used to analyze six-year completion rates included 120,395 students from the same institutions. For certificate seeking students, a sample of 51,721 students was used that spanned 19 colleges with a subset of 35,527 students used to analyze four-year completion rates.

 

QUESTIONS

Three research questions were investigated:

  • Do student outcomes differ among students accessing their courses via different delivery modes?
  • Do any such differences vary by minority or Pell status?
  • Are any differences related to delivery mode or minority or Pell status consistent across degree levels?

 

METHODS

The primary independent variable for this study was delivery mode. Three levels of delivery mode were considered: fully online, fully onground, and mixed/hybrid (which included students who took courses both online and on campus, and those who took hybrid courses). Four outcomes were studied for each dataset: whether or not the student earned a GPA of 2.5 or higher, whether or not the student withdrew from one or more courses, whether or not the student was retained to a second year, and whether or not the student completed their degree in six years (four years for certificate-seeking students).

Because students self-select different delivery modes, the average academic outcomes for students engaged in different delivery modes likely reflects not only differences in the delivery modes themselves but also the types of students who select them. Therefore to obtain better estimates for the associations between delivery modes and academic outcomes, we adjusted for seven student background variables that might explain some of the self-selection: age, credits attempted in the student’s first term, gender, prior credits, race, whether the student received a Pell grant, and whether the student was a transfer student or first time in college.

We used fixed effects regression to limit our comparisons to variance within institutions, cohorts, and majors in estimating parameters of interest (Allison, 2009) while still adjusting for relevant background variables that might account for differences in the outcomes within these.

Because our outcomes of interest were binary, fixed effects logistic regression models were used. In order to determine whether the relationships between delivery modes and student outcomes were moderated by race or Pell status, a second set of models were built that included interaction terms for delivery mode and race and delivery mode and Pell. All models were built using the bife package in R Studio, version 3.5.0 (Stammann et al., 2018). For ease of interpretability, parameter estimates were converted to odds ratios by exponentiating the logits for main effects. In the models with interaction effects, odds ratios were estimated at each combination of the levels of the variables involved in the interactions.

 

RESULTS

Bachelor Degree Seeking Students

Among bachelors-seeking students, fully onground and mixed/hybrid students had similar retention rates (75.5% and 73.3% respectively) while fully online students had a lower retention rate (63.4%). Six-year completion rates followed a similar trend. Fully online students, however, were less likely to withdraw from a course when compared to fully onground and mixed/hybrid students. Average GPAs were highest for fully online students and lowest for fully onground students. Odds ratios resulting from the fixed effects regression model reveal that all associations between delivery mode and outcomes were very weak. In general bachelors students do not appear, on average to be at substantially greater risk of achieving each of the outcomes when taking online courses. However, African-American bachelors students who were fully online had greater odds of withdrawing from a course, and lesser odds of earning a GPA over 2.5 and/or being retained to a second year.

Associate Degree Seeking Students

Among associate degree seeking students, retention rates were highest for fully onground students (57.3%) and lowest for fully online students (44.8%). Students in the mixed/hybrid group retained at a rate of 52.1%. Six-year completion rates, however, were remarkably similar across delivery modes. The percentage of students who withdrew from one or more courses during their first term was lowest among fully online students and highest for mixed/hybrid students. Average GPAs were similar for fully onground and mixed/hybrid and higher for fully online students (2.61).

Among associate degree seekers, mixed/hybrid students had 1.42 times greater odds of withdrawing from a course, 21% lower odds of earning a GPA over 2.5, 17% lower odds of being retained, and 17% lower odds of completing their degree in six years. Fully online students had 1.21 times greater odds of withdrawing from a course, 32% lower odds of earning a GPA over 2.5, 34% lower odds of being retained, and 30% lower odds of completing their degree in six years. Each of these associations were statistically significant at the alpha=.001 level.

African-American associates students who were fully online or mixed/hybrid students were less likely to earn a GPA over 2.5 and had lesser odds of being retained that fully onground African American students. Taking online courses was also associated with lesser odds of retention among black students than white students. The associations between delivery mode and retention were weaker among Pell recipients than for students who were not Pell recipients. This indicates that taking courses online is both a greater risk factor for GPA and lesser risk factor for retention among Pell recipients than for students who are not Pell recipients. Perhaps online students with funding are more likely to keep trying in the face of poor grades than those without funding.

Certificate Seeking Students

Retention rates among certificate-seeking students were slightly lower for fully online students than for fully onground and mixed/hybrid students. Completion rates were slightly lower for mixed/hybrid students and much lower for fully online students than for fully onground students The percentage of students withdrawing from at least one course was higher for students taking online courses. Moreover, certificate seeking students who took all their courses onground had the highest average GPA and mixed/hybrid students had the lowest.

Altogether, certificate students taking courses online appear to be more at risk of poorer course performance (as seen in course withdrawals and GPA outcomes) and at greater risk of not completing their degree, especially for those who are taking all of their courses online.

Among students who were Pell recipients those who were fully online had greater odds of withdrawing from a course and lesser odds of earning a GPA over 2.5. These associations were stronger than those observed among non-Pell recipients. At the same time, being a Pell recipient again appeared to partially mitigate the associations between being fully online and retention and completion. Among both black and Hispanic students, those who were fully online had lesser odds of both retaining and completing their degree compared to similar students taking fully onground courses. For white students, those who were fully online had similar odds of retention to students who were fully onground.

 

CONCLUSIONS/DISCUSSION

In previous research, we found that the relationship between online course taking and student retention differed for students who were taking some courses online versus those who were taking exclusively online courses. This research built on earlier work to examine relationships between online course taking and a variety of academic outcomes -- GPA, course withdrawals, retention, and degree completion in a new sample of colleges and universities. We examined students in certificate, as well as associate and bachelor degree programs, and explored whether or not the relationship between online course taking and student success differs for minority students and/or Pell recipients.  

Results indicate that taking courses online has a minimal effect on the outcome variables for bachelor degree students after adjusting for credit attempts and other demographics. Taking any courses online does, however, have a small, negative effect on most outcomes for associates students, and a small to medium negative effect on GPA and completion outcomes for certificates students. Outcomes gaps between students enrolled in any online courses and students taking only onground courses were amplified at all levels for minority students. Interestingly, the advantage for students taking some courses online found in previous research was not replicated here. Pell status seemed to increase risk for fully online students in terms of course performance, but reduce the risk of not being retained and not completing. The results clearly suggest that we need to do more for online minority students and that financial support might be a good first step.