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Taking classes by computer has become common at many community colleges, and today, most universities offer some online courses. Elite schools like NYU and Columbia have remained reluctant to award online bachelor's degrees, but that has started to change during hard times: Online courses can be more cheaply produced than traditional classroom offerings.
But knotty problems remain for online education. Dropout rates are higher than in traditional courses, and educators have struggled to ensure that long-distance students don't cheat on exams. Students have raised other concerns, from fair tuition costs to the perceived inferior quality of online coursework.
At Pace University, students can choose from nearly 600 online offerings; more than half of Pace students have taken an online course, compared to about a quarter of college students nationwide. Undergraduates can currently satisfy all their liberal arts requirements—60 credits, or half their degree hours—with online courses. A decade ago, Pace started an online degree program expressly for telecommunications workers, but this fall, the school will offer its first online bachelors' programs for the general public, in business and computer science.
"We were starting to get inquiries from former Pace students who wanted to finish their degrees, and we decided to help them," explains Christine Shakespeare, special advisor for strategic initiatives. To be accepted into either degree program, students must have already completed 56 credit hours at an accredited institution and maintained a GPA of at least 2.5.
The online degrees cost much less per credit hour than Pace's traditional degree programs: $535 per credit as opposed to $937 per credit for a part-time student. (Full-time undergraduates pay a flat $16,328 for 12 to 18 credits.) "The price is competitive with what the online institutions are offering," Shakespeare says. "We have the resources and the history of a traditional nonprofit institution, so we'd like to attract the students who have been turning to the online schools with some dubious results."
Worse than face-to-face?
Pace's measured approach to awarding online degrees is typical, as universities are attracted by the promises of lower costs and larger audiences but struggle with the paucity of research into whether students learn as well in an online setting.
A 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Education collected 99 studies and concluded that online instruction is slightly more effective. Yet in an upcoming study in the Journal of Labor Economics, researchers criticize the government's conclusion, claiming it isn't supported by "apples-to-apples comparisons" and charging that the rush to online education may come at a cost.
The new study looked at two groups of students: those who sat through live lectures in an introductory economics course and those who watched the lectures online. Hispanics, males, and low achievers scored worse online even though the lectures were delivered before large classes.
"We need to have a lot more studies, because the train is leaving the station, and we don't have a solid knowledge of the consequences," says one of the paper's authors, David Figlio, an education economist at Northwestern University. "Online courses are cheaper to operate, so they may still pass a cost-benefit analysis. But it's just not a free lunch."
Educators appear afraid to raise any questions when their institutions offer classes on the Internet, says Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. In a recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jenkins called online learning "the third rail in American higher-education politics: Step on it and you're toast."
The biggest problem with online courses, says Jenkins, is their high dropout rates compared to those of face-to-face classes. He points to studies finding completion rates in online courses of only 50 percent as opposed to 70 to 75 percent for comparable classes where the students must physically show up.
"When I was a department chair and a dean, I saw the numbers on a quarterly basis, and there were problems," says Jenkins. "I brought it up at the time, and nobody wanted to talk about it. Looking at the current numbers nationally, it doesn't appear that things are getting much better."
Jenkins's doubts are backed up by two recent studies from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. One report, following 51,000 community-college students in Washington State from 2004 to 2009, found an 8 percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses. A previous report on Virginia community colleges showed completion-rate gaps of 13 percentage points.
"You must do everything you can to offer the classes students need within a budget," Jenkins says. "But at some point, you've got to look at these numbers and ask why the overall success rates are so low. What can we do to help students succeed?"
Hope for hybrids?
The Columbia studies did find one bright spot: Hybrid classes, which mix learning on the Web with some classroom time, have much better success rates than online-only courses, though they still fall a bit short of complete face-to-face instruction. "You can't teach everything fully online," Jenkins says. "Being one-on-one with my students adds something to the class. Over the next two to three years, my plan is to move to hybrids, roughly half online, half face-to-face."
This fall, New York University will roll out at least one freshman introductory course as an online hybrid model. Such courses as "Introduction to Sociology" and "American Literature I" are usually conducted in large lecture halls. But by putting the lectures online, NYU Social Sciences Dean Dalton Conley argues, professors can free up class time to dedicate to discussion and their students.