Online class success rate earns an ‘F’

By Debbie Hadley

Online courses are not for everyone.

“I always forgot to do the readings and the tests,” said Jordan Tijerino, a game design major at Pima Community College. “It wasn’t difficult keeping up with the work, it was just remembering to do it.”

Tijerino enrolled in his first online hybrid course last year, and stuck with it despite his struggles. “I got this thing that if I start a class I’m going to finish it,” he said. In the end, however, Tijerino failed the class.

Many college students, especially males, perform poorly in online environments.

“I took one over summer. It was hell,” said liberal arts major William Strasser. “It was a lightning-fast course, which was kind of the problem for me. I got a D. It was my first hybrid class and I haven’t taken one since. I wouldn’t take another one.”

Online formats include classes taught entirely online, self-paced Web classes and hybrid classes with both online and classroom instruction.

PCC statistics show that all online formats have lower success rates than other forms of instruction.

Chancellor Roy Flores shared results for white, male (non-Hispanic) students during a presentation to PCC employees during All College Day on Aug 20.

“They’re not as successful using Web courses,” Flores said. “They’re not as successful using the technology. That is a bit of a surprise.”

Inez Whipple, a PCC instructional designer and Blackboard senior certified trainer, does not find the results surprising. “I suspect had Chancellor Flores put any demographic group up there, it would have been abysmal,” she said.

Whipple also works for PCC’s Center for Learning Technology, which rarely develops self-paced courses.

“We don’t believe that students can go through the material with minimal interaction with other students,” she said. “I think self-paced courses do a disservice to students.”

Nursing student Axel Gudenkauf agrees after giving online courses a try.

“I did good, but I didn’t like them,” Gudenkauf said. “I’m the kind of person who needs social interaction and online just didn’t work. I don’t think it works for most people.”

Enrollment in PCC online classes has averaged a 12.6 percent increase each year since 2005.

In Fall 2009, PCC offered 743 online classes, 199 hybrids and 544 online-only. There were 4,327 students enrolled in the hybrid classes and 11,532 enrolled in online classes, for a total of 15,859 students.

Plans to improve the high dropout rate and low success rate are not yet under way. Flores is counting on his staff to make changes that meet student needs.

“As we get more data, I’m hopeful that deans and faculty and others who provide direct instruction and support services begin to use that to provide better services in a more timely fashion,” Flores said.

Whipple said instructional designers would like to add more. “We’ve got text and we’re trying to introduce more video, other learning styles, podcasting and things like that.”

However, low funding means fewer improvements.

“We’re kind of limited in the opportunities we can provide for students,” Whipple said. “Financially, we’re not being given the money to develop those kinds of things. The economy limits us on the kinds of things we can branch out to do.”

Whipple said students who are good at scheduling their time will have fewer problems passing an online class.

It’s difficult to reach students who stop participating, she added.

“The thing is, they’re not there,” she said. “They don’t log in, they don’t participate in the discussion. I don’t know what they’re thinking.”

The “Distance Learning” tab on Pima’s website includes a posting titled, “Is Distance Learning for me?” It says students who wish to succeed must “be highly interactive” and “participate frequently.”

Whipple and Flores both said the advising staff should tell students what to expect.

“Certainly I feel it’s the responsibility of our advising staff to let students know that online courses are not easy,” Whipple said. “It’s not an easy way out. You are going to work and put in at least the same amount of effort that you would in a face-to-face course.”

Flores said more can be done. “I don’t think we do students a service by not saying anything and then implicitly assuming that it works the same for everyone.”

Gus Figuerua, a PCC nursing student who has successfully completed an online class, said students should take responsibility.

“They’re signing up for it,” he said. “They know what they’re getting into.”

Tijerino, meanwhile, is taking another hybrid course this semester. Although he failed the first course and now knows what to expect, he still wasn’t doing well three weeks into the class.

“I only remembered to do one of the three weeks of homework,” he said.

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