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The Two Big Problems With Online College Courses 215

Hugh Pickens writes "The NY Times reports that while online college classes are already common, on the whole, the record is not encouraging because there are two big problems with online teaching. First, student attrition rates — around 90 percent for some huge online courses — appear to be a problem even in small-scale online courses when compared with traditional face-to-face classes. Second, courses delivered solely online may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students who make up a significant portion of college enrollment and who need close contact with instructors to succeed. Research has shown that community college students who enroll in online courses are significantly more likely to fail or withdraw than those in traditional classes, which means that they spend hard-earned tuition dollars and get nothing in return. Worse still, low-performing students who may be just barely hanging on in traditional classes tend to fall even further behind in online courses. 'Colleges need to improve online courses before they deploy them widely,' says the Times. 'Moreover, schools with high numbers of students needing remedial education should consider requiring at least some students to demonstrate success in traditional classes before allowing them to take online courses.' Interestingly, research found that students in hybrid classes — those that blended online instruction with a face-to-face component — performed as well academically as those in traditional classes. But hybrid courses are rare, and teaching professors how to manage them is costly and time-consuming. 'The online revolution offers intriguing opportunities for broadening access to education. But, so far, the evidence shows that poorly designed courses can seriously shortchange the most vulnerable students.'"
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The Two Big Problems With Online College Courses

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  • Nothing New Here... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Art Challenor ( 2621733 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @07:36PM (#42960659)
    "Correspondence Courses", of which online is the latest incarnation, have always had these problems. Indeed, degrees obtained through this type of self-study are often very highly regarded, not just because you have the degree, but because you had the motivation and tenacity to complete the degree without all the traditional support structure of an bricks-and-mortar college.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @07:39PM (#42960669)

    It's not online courses that are the issue, it's the people taking them. I'm in a Business 101 class at the moment (Have a B.S. in C.S., taking this a pre-req for some other educational goals I have), and the other people in the class are completely without discipline. It's a condensed 8 week course. We had one full week to take a mid term, which entails showing up to a campus in Northern Virginia, there are like 6, and taking a one hour exam. Enough people failed to do that, that the professor extended the time to take the exam by ONE WHOLE WEEK, this was after it was due!

    Then I had a group project to do, each person in our group was assigned a portion which involved a 1-2 paragraph response. I get a beautiful full page response from someone two hours before we turn it in (I was to combine and submit for our group). The devil's advocate in me copied an entire paragraph, googled it, and low and behold, that person had plagiarized word for word from another group who had taken this course previously. When I asked for citations, they simply cited the main website for the fortune 500 company that the report was in, which, mind you, had ZERO information on it than what was on the page they turned in.

    So like I say, it's not the medium, it's the dumbasses who typically enroll in them. Community colleges should stop focusing on passing everyone or handing out blue ribbons and start thinning out the herd. They're doing more a disservice to these kids by allowing them so much slack than they realize.

  • Re:fix the students (Score:5, Interesting)

    by funwithBSD ( 245349 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @07:40PM (#42960675)

    If found the UOP online classes to be much easier for me than when I went to a traditional Uni.

    The one class at a time, 6 weeks of grind was very effective. I felt focused and did not fell like I was losing cycles switching between subjects.

    That said, it is a bit of a death march. Once you fall behind, you are likely unable to recover.

    During my two years I dropped 2 classes. One for a death in the family of the grandfather I am named after, and the other for an instructors that was not just off the syllabus, but off the map too.

  • by loonwings ( 1519397 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @07:40PM (#42960677)
    I attend University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. For every class I take online I have to pay $300 on top of the already ridiculously high tuition. I have no idea why; there's no additional resources they're using, and they don't have to use any classrooms for this. It should be a $300 DISCOUNT.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @07:42PM (#42960691)

    I have taken several online classes with Coursera starting with Andrew Ng's Machine Learning outing (before he even launched Coursera).

    I'll sign up for lots of classes that look interesting, but I don't know what they're going to be like or more importantly when they're ever going to start. Then suddenly, a whole bunch of them start at the same time. I pick the best one or two and stick with those. Three at once with a full-time lead dev gig is not so cool.

    You can't plan when you're going to take what because it's very touch-and-go with Coursera. I've been registered for Jurafsky and Manning's NLP class for months and months now, and I have no clue when or even if it will ever start. Also, you have no idea with a class if it's going to get stupid part way through because people complain that it's too tough.

    And, sometimes work just picks up and you have to drop most or all of your classes, that's just how it goes.

    Still, one class I just finished, something like 17% of the people who finished had doctoral degrees (self-reported). So there's a pretty good quality of student that sticks it out.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @07:51PM (#42960743)

    When I really want to learn something, I'm plenty motivated - I eat, breath and shit the subject.

    When I had to take a subject because somewhere someone dictated that one has to take that subject to be "well rounded", I did the bare minimum to get a decent grade and get it over with. Art History for example. The only way to get a good grade in it was to memorize paintings and artists that I forgot 3 days after the class ended.

  • Re:fix the students (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @07:51PM (#42960745)

    I have a better idea. We discourage the students who aren't cut out for secondary school from enrolling in the first place. We also fight the stigma associated with trade and labor jobs. In many cases, the skilled trades person is going to be financially way ahead of the mediocre college grad by the time they're 30 anyway. There are also more real jobs in many trades than we can expect from many shitty college degrees.

  • Re:fix the students (Score:5, Interesting)

    by erpbridge ( 64037 ) <steve&erpbridge,com> on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @08:11PM (#42960905) Journal

    When I took my online classes at Charter Oak from 2007-2011, the instructors in ALL the classes were required to have an online forum, and part of the grading criteria for every course was a class participation grade which was 30 pct of the total grade. The instructors usually had a criteria that there had to be X number of posts on the forum across two different days, and that one of the posts had to be an initial post in response to one of the 3 or 4 posted discussion topics for the week. The other posts had to be a meaningful and well thought out post in response to another person's topic advancing the discussion. The teachers also, in addition to a weeklong assignment published ahead of time, had a written assignment due mid week that was not posted until that Sunday, and one that was posted the day after the mid week one that was due Saturday.

    These all seemed to be common themes across all the courses. This seemed to be this college's way of trying to keep the students engaged with the class and instructor. Now, it depended on the instructor... some were pretty hands off for their classes, so people got away with posting a very general short post, and some instructors were hands on and did not accept those short posts toward the week total.

    The students also, in the first year, had a mid semester and mid term checkup phone conference with their assigned academic advisor, as well as a yearly checkup over the summer to fine tune their course selections for the coming year. After the first year was completed, the only time we really talked to academic advisor was during the summer about fine tuning the course selections, as the course curriculum contained a relatively large open area for choosing your classes toward your major, and WHEN you could choose to take those classes (some colleges insist certain core courses must be taken during your first two semesters... this one was open to when you took them, as long as you did.)

    Really though, no matter what amount of handholding the college gives you, no matter if you're taking it online or in person, or hybrid, its up to you as the student to step up as an adult and realize you're overwhelmed and need help. With an online course, you end up taking more of that in your own hands, as no one can actually see your body language, your class hours are NOT set to specific times like at a brick and mortar, and you also aren't as isolated from outside real world distractions during your chosen class time as you are at a brick and mortar.

    Whereas in a brick and mortar college you are able to sit yourself down in the cafeteria or library and read, and you MUST be in a structured class between 2:30-5:00 on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday... In an online class you have to find time after the kids head to sleep, and your chosen class time is 10:30pm-11:45pm on Sunday, Tuesday, and Saturday.... and as you're sitting at the computer, you have to resist the urge to Facebook/email/IM/game, and set your priorities straight.

    (That last little bit right there is the unstated reason why so many people have problems... myself included. I never bombed out of any online classes or withdrew... but I skated through on a few classes by phoning it in with lax teachers while on a raiding guild schedule from shortly after work ended until midnight.)

  • by Em Adespoton ( 792954 ) <> on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @08:16PM (#42960955) Homepage Journal

    "Correspondence Courses", of which online is the latest incarnation, have always had these problems. Indeed, degrees obtained through this type of self-study are often very highly regarded, not just because you have the degree, but because you had the motivation and tenacity to complete the degree without all the traditional support structure of an bricks-and-mortar college.

    Indeed; and I remember taking experimental online courses 20 years ago, where the study associated with the courses had exactly the same findings. Some of the courses attempted to fix the attrition rate by having companion courses that were required to be taken at the same time at a local campus -- this resulted in slightly higher attrition for the meatspace course, and significantly less attrition for the online one.

    This was 20 years ago. I had hoped that we had learned a few things since then, not just re-learned the same things.

  • Fix the lecturer (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @09:07PM (#42961401) Homepage Journal

    they should teach students in secondary school to be more "highly motivated". would make the college experience much more rewarding.

    Motivation is the responsibility of the lecturer, not the student. You can't teach someone to be more motivated. Forcing someone to "tough it out" when things are boring is counterproductive, it's not the way we learn.

    Motivation comes from two things: perceived value, and emotional content.

    Courses which focus on theory and the abstract aspects of a subject are going to seem boring and pointless, while courses which incorporate a mix of theory and practical application in a way that's perceived as valuable will be more interesting.

    So for example, an electronics course can focus on theory and problem solving - with long derivations at the start and the formula results at the end of each lecture. That would be boring, and requires a significant amount of "forced attention".

    That same course could focus on hands-on projects, showing students that they could build things which they could actually use. Once a circuit is working, *then* explain why it works - filling in the knowledge gaps after the student has basic familiarity. That would be interesting, and follow more naturally the way humans learn.

    That's perceived value; the other aspect is emotional content.

    Many lecturers present the information in a dry, matter-of-fact manner. This is also boring, and requires "forced attention".

    Some lecturers, however, have an infectious enthusiasm for the subject. They laugh, tell jokes and amusing stories, and generally have fun with the subject. The students enjoy the lecture and the learning isn't an ordeal.

    That's the emotional side of value. There are other types of emotional content, such as horror novels in literature, or the chemistry of explosives.

    Teach the professors about motivation. You'll get a lot more effect for your efforts.

  • by AuMatar ( 183847 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @09:31PM (#42961567)

    Its not just dropping the ones that take the most work- some of us drop the ones that are least interesting. But f you're talking about the free online courses, signing up for a bunch and surveying them to see how interested you are is a good way to try things that you don't know your interest level on without high investment. Of course, I'm not taking those classes for school (and even the ones I pass would never go on my resume), I'm doing it for amusement. And I'm talking free classes.

  • by dgun ( 1056422 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @09:46PM (#42961671) Homepage
    I agree. And how much is a college degree worth when everyone has one? There is a student loan bubble on the horizon and I guess a mountain of defaults is what it will take before we seriously reconsider how we educate in the US.
  • Re:Fix the lecturer (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Macgrrl ( 762836 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @09:48PM (#42961679)

    I beg to differ - motivation falls into two separate categories - internal and external motivations.

    Say you want to lose some weight and buff up a bit. The internal motivation may be you don't like the way you look and you want to avoid health problems in the future. Any time you feel yourself starting to slack off, you have to revisit your goals and the reasons why you started the weight loss program in the first place.

    Many people have difficulty managing internal motivations, so they rely on external motivations - in the case of the weight loss example, you may hire a personal trainer who will show up and badger you into following your agreed exercise routine. You may also join something like Weight Watchers where you have a regular weigh in and will be 'shamed' within the support group if you don't follow your agreed plan.

    When it comes to study, having the goal of becoming a Doctor may be an internal motivation to pay attention in class - you have a personal reason for wanting to excel. Not wanting to waste money on a course you drop out of or may have to repeat, or having to tell your parent you failed a course they paid for is an external motivation.

    The greatest success comes when someone is truly engaged and internally motivated to achieve. If you rely entirely on external motivations and don't really want to be doing whatever it is you are working towards, as soon as the external factor lets up you'll stop.

    Having an entertaining lecturer is certainly better than having a boring one, but if the student is only doing the course because they don't know what else to do with their time, it's unlikely they will absorb the lessons for any length of time.

  • Re:fix the students (Score:5, Interesting)

    by plover ( 150551 ) on Thursday February 21, 2013 @02:25AM (#42963527) Homepage Journal

    The hidden drawback is that one clever person can decimate an industry. Take plumbing, for example. Fitting iron pipes together required sweat, hacksaws, pipe threaders, and a lot of time to plumb a building. Then along came copper tubing, which was lighter and faster, and a six week job became a four week job. PVC turned drainage work into a cut and glue operation, shaving off more time. And now we have Pex with which a plumber can run a house as fast as he can drill holes in two by fours and snap a few fittings on, finishing in mere days. Where we needed seven plumbers 50 years ago, today we need one.

    And every industry is looking to technology to make laborers "more efficient". Smart people make advances in crop harvesting, reducing the demand for farmers. Boring machines have replaced tunnel diggers. Given the average car's reliability has risen sixfold due to continual improvements in engineering, machining, and materials, how many mechanic jobs are left? The size of the motors that electricians would have once repaired keeps going up as commodity pricing has made even large motors cheaper than the cost of a rebuild.

    The job of a laborer isn't being off shored, but it is still being threatened.

Today is the first day of the rest of your lossage.