Online Students Earn Lower Grades, More Likely to Fail Courses, According to New Large-Scale Analysis

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Online courses have become an increasingly popular learning option for college students. Nearly 1 in 3 students in the United States take classes online, and over 3 million are enrolled in exclusively online programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

 However, a new paper titled “Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise? A Look at the Evidence and Implications for Federal Policy” argues that students enrolled in online classes have lower grades and failed classes in higher numbers than students taking traditional face-to-face courses. The paper, written by George Mason University professor Spiros Protopsaltis and Urban Institute fellow Sandy Baum, suggests that online courses are possibly less beneficial to students, especially those with weaker academic backgrounds, than traditional courses.

 The authors used various national studies to analyze the academic success rates of online students across various sectors of higher education, including community college and four-year, for-profit online programs. One study from the Washington State Community College System reviewed data from over 51,000 students at 34 community colleges and technical schools and concluded that students enrolled in online courses were less likely to complete a degree than those who took fewer online courses. Additionally, male students and black students particularly struggled in online courses, according to the study.

 At four-year, for-profit colleges, taking an online course reduced the probability of a student receiving an A grade in the class by over 12 percent, according to a 2017 paper published in the American Economic Review and featured in this study. Students taking online courses were also more likely than students enrolled in in-person classes to drop out of college.

 Baum and Protopsaltis suggest that the potential pitfall in online education is the lack of face-to-face interaction between students and teachers. In-person communication is intrinsic to motivating and helping students understand course material, according to the paper.

The authors also argues that the results collected from the various studies show the need for better regulation on online education and online institutions. Online courses will need to require more innovative face-to-face interaction between educators and students in order to reduce poor student outcomes that come with a high price tag.