Colleges that have online courses

A student studying and working on a laptop.

Newest study finds students are 11 percent less likely to pass an online version of the same class.

Community colleges have rapidly expanded their online course offerings in the past decade, though studies indicate that the method of instruction isn't effective at these schools.

Here’s an unusual case where scholarly research is producing a clear conclusion: Online instruction at community colleges isn’t working. Yet policymakers are continuing to fund programs to expand online courses at these schools, which primarily serve low-income minority students, and community college administrators are planning to offer more and more of them.

The latest salvo comes from researchers at the University of California—Davis, who found that community college students throughout California were 11 percent less likely to finish and pass a course if they opted to take the online version instead of the traditional face-to-face version of the same class. The still-unpublished paper, titled “Online Course-taking and Student Outcomes in California Community Colleges, ” was presented on April 18, 2015, at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in Chicago.

[READ: Community Colleges Expand Online as Overall Enrollment Declines]

“In every subject, students are doing better face-to-face, ” said Cassandra Hart, one of the paper’s authors. “Other studies have found the same thing. There’s a strong body of evidence building up that students are not doing quite as well in online courses, at least as the courses are being designed now in the community college sector.”

Example of an Online Course at a Community College

Source: Youtube video describing a basic computer skill course at Columbia Gorge Community College, Oregon.

Whether online instruction is effective in community colleges is an important question. The sector educates 45 percent of the nation’s undergraduates and is under fire for low graduation rates. At first blush, it would seem that online courses, where students can log in at their convenience and complete assignments at their own pace, might be an ideal solution for community college students, many of whom are older and juggling jobs and parenting.

Not surprisingly, community colleges have rapidly expanded their online course offerings in the past decade. More than 27 percent of students at public two-year colleges were taking some or all of their classes online in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, many more than at four-year colleges. For the most part, these are ordinary students taking some courses online at a bricks-and-mortar school, not students in fully online degree programs.

[READ: Get 4-Year Credits With Online Community College Classes]

Despite the flexibility, it appears that many students find it hard to manage their time to complete the lectures and coursework throughout an entire semester. Prior studies in Virginia and Washington state, conducted by scholars at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2011 and 2013, found worse outcomes for community college students who take courses online. And two earlier studies, in 2012 and 2014, found the same result as in the recent California study.

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