While academics are always frightened when we see academic issues politicized, we are even more disturbed when the issue is a simplified “solution” to a complex problem that we know would serve to exacerbate existing inequities in educational outcomes. Today’s problematic solution is online education as a response to existing access issues in higher education created by chronic underfunding. One need not look far to find stories touting how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will force dramatic changes in higher education and, in California, to find legislation intended to increase the availability of online course offerings. No consideration appears to have been made regarding what students need and want access to, nor what access will be of most benefit to them.
Over the past five years, California’s community colleges have been plagued with access issues. As “open access” institutions, access is merely a reference to the availability of courses. The number of courses offered is a reflection of both funding and demand. While the colleges have faced an increase in demand for courses due to the economic downturn, they have also had their funding reduced. In other words, the access issues were a consequence of increased demand and reduced supply. Today, the demand is declining and there appears to be some relief to our fiscal woes. Interestingly, the legislature is now indicating renewed concern in our access issues just as the climate that created them is changing.
Despite the recent years of diminished funding, California community colleges have engaged in an effort to identify mechanisms for improving success in our colleges and are now in the midst of implementing recommendations that resulted from a year-long process that produced a plan for improving student outcomes. The most critical element of this plan was recognition of the need to support students — to ensure they have access to the support services they need to begin their college experience with a pathway to their desired goal. While colleges are striving to develop ways to better provide the services they are not fully funded for, recent funding-related changes are prompting students to take every course enrollment seriously, and enrollment priorities that will soon be implemented will provide further pressure on students to select a pathway and achieve their goal or goals in a timely manner. Our colleges have long been criticized for their over-emphasis on access and are striving to achieve an appropriate balance of access and success. We are therefore alarmed to suddenly see an emphasis on our access issues used to support an increase in the use of a specific educational modality as a means of increasing access, when that modality yields less success by all measures and exacerbates existing differential outcomes.
Online education is an excellent form of instruction for some students, some courses and some faculty. When it’s done well, online instruction is more work for students and more work for faculty. Despite the increased workload that is an element of a quality online educational experience, the removal of temporal and geographic barriers may enhance its appeal to both students and faculty. Unfortunately, the removal of those barriers may also result in students enrolling in such courses when they do not have the time or motivation to persist and succeed. Our colleges consistently observe poorer outcomes in our online courses. This situation is neither tragic nor surprising; indeed, it is truly predictable. The vast majority of students who enroll in online courses are also taking campus-based courses. We should not be surprised the online course is the one that is neglected or dropped when a student realizes he or she has taken on too much or when life simply gets in the way. Furthermore, as we do not restrict access to online courses, students with little computer experience or access to computers are regularly permitted to register for online courses when their computer savvy and limited access to technology set them up for failure. Mastering the use of a smart phone does not equate to having the skills needed to succeed in the online environment.
While the “digital divide” (i.e., differential access to the Internet) may or may not now be effectively bridged, all the data indicate that online education is not the best modality for the students that need us the most.
Data from spring 2012  indicates a success rate of less than 50 percent in online basic skills courses for most demographics; Asians and white non-Hispanics succeeded slightly more often, at 59.96 percent and 50.58 percent, respectively, but even these success rates are by no means satisfactory.
The data for transfer level courses indicate that the online modality is better suited for these courses and students, but the success rates are still lower than those for classroom-based courses, and ethnic disparities are exacerbated. The average success rate in transferable online courses was 59.97 percent, as compared to 70.07 percent for non-distance education modalities.
Success rates for African Americans, Hispanics and white non-Hispanics in online courses were 43.28 percent, 54.49 percent and 65.67 percent as compared to success rates of 58.67 percent, 67.01 percent, and 75.29 percent, respectively, in non-distance education modalities.
Increasing access to a modality that yields 10 to 15 percent less success and that increases existing performance gaps is really no solution for educational access issues in California.
Online education is a useful and powerful educational option, not a panacea and certainly not a means of decreasing the costs of education — at least as not currently envisioned. Greater use of technology to enhance classroom-based instruction has the potential to increase student success, and improving how we teach our online courses can reap similar potential. Such strategies are where resources need to be focused: on increasing the appropriate use of technology and improving what we are currently doing. Improved success yields greater access.
If more students succeeded in classes the first time they enrolled, our access issues would be diminished. And if an interest exists in increasing access to online offerings, we should work on increasing access to our own online offerings as opposed to creating a complicated system to evaluate the online offerings of others that essentially increases access for those students who can afford it, do not need financial aid and are willing to put time and energy into taking a course which may never result in a transcriptable outcome.
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 California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. “Management Information Systems Data Mart,” California Government website, accessed from http://datamart.cccco.edu/datamart.aspx
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