Online courses at campus based colleges may be failing to educate students

In a VOICE survey conducted in 2011 of 30 Mercer students who had taken an online course, 100 percent said they had cheated in an online class. Now more substantial research suggests this mode of instruction may not work well for community college students. Photo credit: Zack Bryson. In a VOICE survey conducted in 2011 of 30 Mercer students who had taken an online course, 100 percent said they had cheated in an online class. Now more substantial research suggests this mode of instruction may not work well for community college students. Photo credit: Zack Bryson.

Written by: Sean O'Connor

W hen Mercer’s Professor of Education, Dr. Theresa Capra, was in her 20’s she was living on her own, paying bills, working towards her bachelor’s degree at CUNY’s Hunter College and spending much of her time –even her lunch break– commuting to classes on the New York City subway.

It was, in her words, “a nightmare.”

But during her doctoral studies, even while raising two young children, and working a full time job, she managed to pull it off. This time, she says, it was the flexibility of being able to take some of her classes online that enabled her to finish her Ph.D.

Having experienced the benefits of online education herself, but knowing that the value of online education has been hotly debated for many years, Dr. Capra recently set out to conduct more research on the subject. In particular, she wanted to learn more about how well online education works for community college level students.

Her findings, published in the December 2013 edition of Community College Journal of Research and Practice, were based on examination of experiences from 15 online students, and looked at the social, cognitive and instructional aspects of their experience. According to the article, the findings “Raise questions about the pedagogical soundness of fully online courses for community college students.”

Since the 1990’s online education has grown more and more popular. It has been supplementing, and, in some cases, replacing traditional classroom learning.

Last year, according to a survey done by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit organization which claims to be “the leading professional online learning society,” 7.1 million higher education students took at least one online class.

While millions are taking these online courses, the question remains: how effective are they compared to traditional classroom courses? Research on this topic is conflicting.

Capra found that “many students described limited instructional presence even when the evidence suggested the instructor was active…emailing, grading, posting assignments and providing feedback on postings indirectly.”

Not all research done on online education leads to the same conclusion about the overall quality of online education. For example, SRI International- which defines itself as an “independent, non-profit research institute”- found that “instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction”

Mercer’s Coordinator of World Languages, and assistant Professor of Spanish Daniel D’Arpa, has been instrumental in finding ways to offer additional language classes to learners using an online model.

D’Arpa told The VOICE in a recent interview that he thinks “combined instruction may certainly be optimal. I am counting on it with my own teaching style.”

When asked why SRI International’s findings differed from hers, Dr. Capra said: “unfortunately, most of this research has a tendency to be based on high performing students, accelerated programs rather than typical college semesters, and students at the 4-year level. Research that has specifically examined community college students has found that online learning leads to increased failure and withdrawals.”

One example can be found in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, written by Ryan Brown. In his article “Community-College Students Perform Worse Online Than Face to Face.”

Brown reports on a study released by the Community College Research Center at the Teachers College at Columbia University, which found that “Community-college students enrolled in online courses fail and drop out more often than those whose coursework is classroom-based”

Capra’s research uncovered another piece of information that runs counter to expectations. Common sense suggests that young people who have grown up with the Internet and text messaging, will naturally take to the online teaching atmosphere. But Capra found that: “Younger and more traditional students, who are stimulated by text-based communication and familiar with technology, were more likely to describe online learning as isolating and mundane.”

She says, “it shows that ‘growing up’ with the Internet doesn’t necessarily mean that students prefer that medium for learning. Additionally, it confirms that nontraditional students have nontraditional needs when it comes to higher education.”

Doug Doherty, an undeclared first year Mercer student, is one example of someone who has grown up with the Internet but doesn’t want it to replace the traditional classroom. He said he has no interest in taking online classes. He told The VOICE: “If I am sitting in the house, I have less motivation.” Whereas, he said that if he is at the college library, he knows what he’s there to do.

In an NPR article published just this last New Years Eve, titled “The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course,” The Chairman of San Jose State’s philosophy department, Peter Hadreas offered his opinion on why online learning appears more advantageous for some people, and not for others. He says, “the people who do well in these kind of courses are people who are already studious.”

Dr. Capra’s findings back this up. She pointed out that the students who participated in her study devoted a “significant” amount of time to it, and received “minimal compensation” for their efforts, which included face to face meetings with her, on a weekly basis, responses to bi-weekly writing prompts she gave them, and a survey. In her view, this may well have been a self selecting group of highly motivated individuals.

Some students are happy with the online courses they took.

Former Republican candidate for Mercer County Freeholder, Paul Hummel, who attended Mercer from 2000-2008, and got an A.S. in Business Admin and an A.A.S. in Accounting and Management, said “I liked my online courses at Mercer, I was able to work around my schedule.”

Other students give their online education a mixed review.

Sherry Skerratt- Feist, another former Mercer student, says that when she attended Mercer she enjoyed the interaction and seeing people face to face. When she later attended Thomas Edison State College online, she loved how convenient it was, but she says she missed seeing people face to face.

Professor D’Arpa acknowledges both the pros and the cons of online education.

He says “online education is best suited to students who already have good time management habits and good study habits before taking their first online class. A student who works very little outside of class should not take an online course without first changing these habits.”

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