Online courses are an increasingly important part of the college experience for students, but what impact does this have on what students get out of their college experience? Trends in online learning were evident even before the COVID-19 outbreak. For example, more than 30% of all students enrolled in post-secondary institutions took at least one online course in the fall 2016 semester.
Advocates of online education to suggest that departments offering online courses can help their students with ease of access to courses; for example, learning on the internet can help students avoid scheduling conflicts and give students more flexibility to pursue outside activities, such as a part-time job. Additionally, online courses are a cost effective way to offer college level education for most universities. However, previous research indicates that students score slightly lower and have lower course retention in online learning compared to traditional face-to-face courses.
Interestingly, little work has examined the indirect outcomes that may still be critical to student success in college, including graduation and graduation rates. This is a timely topic: while online courses present a potentially effective teaching modality for increasing students’ graduation, departments may wish to retain some of their online courses originally designed to combat stress. need for distance education during COVID-19 pandemic.
In our study, which was just published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (EEPA), we analyzed six years of institutional data (all before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic) for three cohorts of students (N = 10,572) . These students had one of the popular 13 majors at a Southern California public research university. We looked at the link between online courses and graduation rates for students in four and six years, as well as time to graduation for students who graduate from college within six years. During the study period, departments at this university offered about 3% of their compulsory courses online, and about 8% of students registered for an online course at some point in their academic career.
This study uses administrative data on courses and student grades and socio-demographic measures provided by the university’s registrar, as well as course catalog data on major requirements. We recognize that those who voluntarily choose to take an online course may be different from those who don’t, and we pursue an empirical identification strategy that attempts to avoid attributing pre-existing differences between individuals to those who do. take online courses. More precisely, we use an approach of instrumental variables, instrumenting the taking of online courses with the help of online course offers. The aim of this method is to provide more plausible causal estimates of the relationship between online course enrollment and student achievement (rather than directly examining course taking behaviors).
Overall, our study finds that taking online courses is associated with a more effective college degree. Students who have the option of taking courses online graduate faster than students in departments that offer fewer courses online. We also find that taking online courses is associated with a higher likelihood of successfully graduating from college within four years. It is important to note that our results appear strong for students who are generally considered at risk in college environments. Analyzes that focused on the online course experiences of first-generation students, low-income students, and students with lower academic preparation indicated weaker, but still positive, benefits of enrollment. Online courses relating to both graduation within four years and the total time it takes to graduate from college.
While these results may seem counterintuitive at first, since online courses are generally not as effective as their face-to-face counterparts, the online course modality may offer other benefits to help students. to succeed in their studies in the longer term. For example, students may register for courses that are otherwise unavailable to them due to scheduling constraints or because similar face-to-face courses that meet similar major requirements may not be offered during the course. of the same quarter. Although there has been considerable progress in research into online courses in higher education, more research is certainly needed to better understand (a) how to design high quality online course environments in different fields. , and (b) how to optimally combine face-to-face and online course offerings throughout a student’s academic career.
As we argue in our article, we believe these findings apply to many institutions, including departments in residential universities that offered little to no online courses prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. By including online courses in their teaching portfolio, they could help more students complete course requirements and graduate.
You can read the full journal article in Educational Assessment and Policy Analysis: “Increasing Success in Higher Education: The Relationship Between Online Courses and College Completion and Time to Graduation.“