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JENKINS: How good are online classes?

One of the most significant developments in education over the past decade has been the emergence of web-based instruction. Two-year colleges and proprietary institutions have led the way, but lately major universities and even high schools have gotten in on the act.

But just how good are online classes? Among educators, the debate rages on, while the research remains inconclusive.

Proponents of online education point to a 2009 meta-analysis (or review of multiple studies) by the U.S. Department of Education which concluded that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction." Buoyed by those findings, they push for an ever-increasing number of online courses, with an ever-increasing number of students enrolled.

Meanwhile, those who advocate a more cautious approach cite two studies conducted by Columbia University that tracked thousands of community college students in Virginia and Washington. Both found that students "enrolled in online courses fail and drop out more often than those whose coursework is classroom-based."

How can both things be true? How can online students "perform better" if they "fail and drop out more often"? A closer look at the DOE meta-analysis may provide some answers.

For one thing, of the 99 studies included in the report, only 28 dealt with fully online courses. Seven involved full-semester classes (the others were all short courses on topics like using a search engine), and five of those were conducted at universities rated as "selective" or "highly selective" by U.S. News and World Report. None, incidentally, involved community colleges.

But perhaps the most telling tidbit is that, in six of the seven studies, withdrawal rates are never mentioned. That easily explains the disconnect.

Of course students who complete an online course perform just as well or better than their counterparts in face-to-face classrooms. The degree of intellectual maturity and self-discipline required to complete an online course is considerable, so it just makes sense that those students would perform well.

The problem, as the Columbia studies clearly demonstrate, is that not enough students complete those courses. This is especially true at two-year colleges and other less-selective institutions. In other words, it's especially true for the most at-risk students, who might not have the intellectual maturity and self-discipline to succeed in an online environment and may also lack other necessary skills, such as high-level reading ability and technological know-how.

The bottom line is that taking classes online can be a great option for students who are highly motivated, possess the requisite skills, and require a flexible schedule for whatever reason. For others, though, online classes can be a disaster.

So before you sign up, consider whether or not you have what it takes to succeed online or whether you'd be better served in a traditional classroom. And remember that going to school in your pajamas isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be.

Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and college professor. Email him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.