Does Online Learning Work?

Though many within the online learning field have considered this question to be a bit of a “been there, done that” moment, some recent studies have indicated new evidence on the impact of online learning for students.  What does online learning “do” to student success?  What does it “do” to graduation rates?

So the short version is that many studies have indicated that in terms of meeting course outcomes, online courses are at least as effective as face-to-face courses.

But many studies at the community college level have indicated a difference in student success rates (generally considered to be A-C) of anywhere from 5% – 10%.  The Community College Research Center’s investigation also revealed this in a 2 state study.

The Paradox

Students who take online courses at community colleges get good grades in lower percentages, but (and this is a big but) they graduate sooner and in greater percentages.

Authors Shea and Bidjerano analyzed national data from community colleges and found that students who take online courses early in their degrees had a 13.5% completion rate over 4 years, as compared to only 8.9% of students who had not.

With online courses continuing to grow at a rate faster than higher education overall (enrollment in online courses grew at 3.7% last year,)  and enrollment declines being seen in community colleges what core components impact student success in online courses?  In other words, how can institutions improve students success rates in online courses?

Follow the Data

From the research conducted into what makes online learning effective, we know that:

  1. Engagement is key to student success online
  2. Good instructional design is critical (outcomes & objectives)
  3. Effective use of technology is a good thing
  4. Student preparation may have some effect

Online Engagement

Historically, online courses were created by “converting” face-to-face instructional materials and quizzes into online delivery systems.  With student engagement being key, it appears that social engagement is important, and studies have supported that theory.  Lack of student engagement online (as indicated by frequency and timeliness of instructor interactions) correlated with student perception of lack of quality in online courses.  In other words, the less engaging the course, the poorer the students perceived the course to be.

Why might online courses be created to be less engaging?  System limitations.  At a time when over one-third of recent marriages start online, when Facebook has 936 million active users in Q1 of 2015 alone, we can postulate that online engagement can be highly effective.  But while has a lot invested in creating engagement online, our LMS systems (i.e. Blackboard et al,) were mainly built to deliver content.

Importance of Instructional Design

…. and delivering content should probably not be the focus online.  Engagement with content is a different animal than posting content.  Recent discussions of contemporary learning theory have focused more and more on active, participatory learning in virtual environments.  This great post explains some of the differences between Education 1.0 and Education 3.0.   Or here by Hase and Kenyon, the originators of heutagogy.

How do you know what is quality online?  Many quality tools have appeared over time based on comprehensive research into what works online.  I’m not going to repeat all that research here, but find research on Quality Matters here, find research on eCampus Alberta’s Rubric here, and find information about Universal Design for Learning here.

Student Preparation for Online Learning

A Noel-Levitz study found that Life Factors and Individual Attributes were a significant predictor of student satisfaction in online courses.  Personal attributes seem to be one of the most- if not the most – important component of student preparation, and this SmarterMeasure research supports that and the conclusion that results on skills for online learning were also correlated with success in online courses.

However, beyond technical skills, by far a learner’s general abilities and qualities such as motivation, attitude, confidence, and independence are most highly correlated with success in online courses.

Other Institutional Advantages

In addition to the conclusion that “yes, it’s effective at graduating students, somewhat less effective at getting them good grades (by 5-10%,) and how you do it really matters,” there are the other institutional advantages.  Beyond fiscal sustainability, when a learner is engaged online, you can capture rich data about their progress in real-time.  No longer does an institution have to wait until the student has already failed the course to conduct intrusive, rapid-fire outreach.

When a student doesn’t come to class, a faculty member can’t always call them to ask why.  But the college can send emails, texts, and even contact the student on social media if that student is participating.  Many institutions don’t have those systems set up yet.  While’s very existence depends upon tracking your online behavior, colleges are not yet there with the technology and the interaction.  But many institutions are actively integrating these components in an effort to support student success.

So there you have it!  The brief version anyways.  Interested in Tri-C’s data on the same?  Contact

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