Study: Online classes may not be best choice for struggling students

Students who are the least prepared for college may want to veer away from taking online courses, a new report suggests.

The study from The Brookings Institution — a left-leaning think tank in Washington — questions the effectiveness of online teaching and the potentially problematic designs of Web-based classes as they proliferate nationwide, Inside Higher Ed’s Nick Roll reports .

The data were limited to one of the nation’s largest for-profit schools, DeVry University, which has 102 campuses nationwide.

Researchers compared data from more than 250,000 students enrolled in more than 750 courses at DeVry, chosen for its size and ability to easily compare online and in-person course-takers. DeVry offers all its courses in both online and in-person formats.

The study found that students who opted for the online version tended to earn lower grades and were at higher risk for dropping out than if they had taken the same class in person. Students who would have earned a B- in an in-person course, for example, scored a C in an online one.

For higher-achieving students, the course format didn’t make much of a difference.

The authors said their findings don’t “necessarily lead to the conclusion that online courses should be discouraged,” and they noted that online programs often “provide access to students who never would have the opportunity or inclination to take classes in person.”

But the report concluded that “the tremendous scale and consistently negative effects of current offerings points to the need to improve these courses, particularly for students most at risk of course failure and college dropout.”

The new study clashes with some previous research examining online learning, including a 2014 study focusing on an MIT physics course.

MIT and Harvard researchers concluded in their report that students of all levels actually learned more via the online course than the traditional, lecture-based one. They found that even the least-prepared students in the online classes seemed to “learn as well as everybody else.”

The Brookings Institution’s new study said more attention should be paid to the design and execution of online courses.

Its authors said too many online classes seem to mirror face-to-face classroom experiences and use the same syllabi, assignments and grading rubrics — as opposed to maximizing the use of technology, digital interactions and blended learning options.

But figuring out the ideal ingredients for an online course can prove challenging.

For example, U.S. Department of Education research has noted that incorporating online quizzes and videos don’t seem to improve student outcomes, but generating unique content based on student responses does.

Data and research is relatively scant still and divided on subject — even though globally, the online education sector is booming .

In the United States, most of the growth in online education is happening at public and private institutions, while for-profit colleges have seen distance-learning enrollment on the decline , Babson Survey Research Group data show.

Two-year community college programs also have seen their online enrollmentgrowth rate slowing down .