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Online Education: Still A Digital Divide

Online education still represents a "digital divide" between socioeconomic groups. Notably, young male minority students seem to struggle in online settings. We are now 30 years into the personal computing revolution, now marked by smartphones with more computing power than early mainframes. Yet, familiarity with technology does not necessarily lead to academic success with technology.

I found this new research paper online while working on a book chapter (sadly, after I submitted the draft). The study raises some old, familiar questions about online education and presents a challenge to people like myself with a vested interest in digital pedagogy.
Adaptability to Online Learning:
Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas

Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars February 2013
Community College Research Center Teachers College, Columbia University


Using a dataset containing nearly 500,000 courses taken by over 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington State, this study examines how well students adapt to the online environment in terms of their ability to persist and earn strong grades in online courses relative to their ability to do so in face-to-face courses. While all types of students in the study suffered decrements in performance in online courses, some struggled more than others to adapt: males, younger students, Black students, and students with lower grade point averages. In particular, students struggled in subject areas such as English and social science, which was due in part to negative peer effects in these online courses.
Contemplate that final sentence, and the phrase "negative peer effects." Try as we might, virtual spaces are shaped by the same cultural forces that affect our traditional classrooms. An instructor or two cannot offset deep cultural beliefs and biases that dismiss education or even mock academic success. Until there are community-level changes in culture, the best teachers can hope for is to inspire change at the individual level.

Changing "one life at a time" sounds wonderful when we make that our stated goal — but isn't easy. Online, it might be even more difficult.

Although I believe the best use of technology is the "hybrid" model, now trendily called "flipped" teaching, there is a place for pure online courses. I still argue these should not be a default, first choice for many students — for a variety of reasons. As this study found, even the successful online students are less successful than peers in traditional courses.
To provide a clearer understanding of this pattern, we restricted our analysis of each academic subject to course enrollments (N = 39, 614) among the group of students who adapted best to the online delivery format— i.e., students who were female, older, non-Black, and had a GPA above or equal to 3.0 in their face-to-face courses in the initial term of college. Within this highly adaptable subsample with peer effects controlled, any remaining significant negative online coefficients in a given subject may indicate that the particular subject area is intrinsically difficult to adapt to the online context. While older students still did more poorly in online than in face-to-face courses, for this population a slight decrement in performance may represent a rational trade-off.
As the above indicates, online education is a "trade-off" for students in special circumstances, something I have argued in faculty meetings and elsewhere. Online serves working students, students with special needs, and students unable to be on campus for a number of other reasons — such as military service or caring for a loved one.

The very factors that make online settings reasonable options for these students also affect the likelihood students will perform well and complete an online course. For these students, life beyond school takes priority, as it must. Therefore, school is going to be the first thing to suffer if there are changes in life circumstances.

Some students do not belong online, though, because they can and should benefit from the traditional classroom setting and the guidance offered in such a setting. Face-to-face, it is easier for an instructor to notice problems, especially silent expressions of confusion, and to take action. I have asked students to stay after class when I have noticed puzzlement. You cannot notice such "blank stares" online.

While acknowledging that most students struggle online to some extent, the authors of the Columbia study offer some suggestions for improving the outcomes of online education. Most of these echo my own suggestions.
Overall, our findings indicate that the typical student has some difficulty adapting to online courses, but that some students adapt relatively well while others adapt very poorly. To improve student performance in online courses, colleges could take at least four distinct approaches: screening, scaffolding, early warning, and wholesale improvement.
The first suggestion, screening, means trying to guide students to the appropriate setting: online or on-campus. Too many students entering fully online courses are unprepared for the discipline required. I've long argued that poor screening sets up students for failure. Once a student fails in a course, he or she might become discouraged.

The report authors write:
First, in terms of screening, colleges could redefine online learning as a student privilege rather than a right. For example, they could bar students from enrolling in online courses until they demonstrate that they are likely to adapt well to the online context (for example, by earning a 3.0 or better GPA, or by successfully completing a workshop on online learning skills). However, this strategy may disadvantage some students, particularly older students, who legitimately require the flexibility of online coursework; what is worse, it could cause drops in enrollments if students interested in online learning are enticed to schools that do not have such screening requirements.
It bothers me that we focus on enrollment; I would rather focus on quality first, which should attract students and community support. Unfortunately, smaller colleges have to survive on tuition dollars. Online education presents a temptation for smaller schools — a way to attract more "bodies" (tuition dollars) in a tough economy.

Not everyone can or should be in an online course, and not all courses should be online. If a course serves a population needing developmental support (what we once called "remediation"), the course does not belong online for many, many reasons. These students need individualized supports. We can offer those supports online, but we should not offer the course in a virtual space. (I strongly endorse putting as many resources online as possible for these students, just not the courses they need.)
As a variant on the screening strategy, colleges might also consider an online course allocation strategy. For example, colleges might consider limiting or eliminating the supply of online sections for course subjects in which a considerable proportion of students are at risk to adapt poorly. …[M]any colleges have already followed this approach by offering very few online courses in developmental education, where a large proportion of students are academically underprepared.
If a college must offer developmental courses or courses that serve a broader population, the authors of the study rightfully suggest teaching good online habits within the class. The building of skills in progression is called "scaffolding" — think of it as taking steps towards the final learning objectives.
A second strategy is scaffolding: incorporating the teaching of online learning skills into online courses in which less-adaptable students tend to cluster, such as English composition. This strategy would require the college to work with instructors to develop materials and assignments that develop online learning skills and deploy them in the selected courses.
Even if you get the "right" students in a course, or precede a course with scaffolding in other courses, there will be challenges. How do we quickly recognize problems, before a student fails? Trying to track students online requires a lot of effort — from running access reports to trying to develop quick assessments students will complete.

I am unconvinced any early warning system will work well, though the authors write:
A third possibility is incorporating early warning systems into online courses in order to identify and intervene with students who are having difficulty adapting. For example, if a student fails to sign in to the online system, or fails to turn in an early ungraded assignment, the system could generate a warning for the instructor or for the college's counseling department, who could in turn call the student to see if he or she is experiencing problems and discuss potential supports or solutions. Early warning systems are becoming increasingly popular but may require a substantial outlay of up-front costs, as well as faculty or counselor time.
In the end, the authors reach the same conclusion I mentioned earlier: quality courses attract quality students.
The fourth strategy, improvement, would instead focus on improving the quality of all online courses taught at the college, to ensure that their learning outcomes are equal to those of face-to-face courses, regardless of the composition of the students enrolled.
— pages 24–5 of report
To improve online education, we have to offer faculty more training and supports. We have to offer more tools — better tools — for the creation of online spaces, content, and assessments. We have to invest a great deal more than we do if we want online courses to succeed for all students.

For now, online courses are still failing the students in need of the most help. I see little in the present to persuade me the digital divide will close in the near future.


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