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  • Chris Hardy

    Hans Johnson is a Bren fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

  • Orange Photography

    Marisol Cuellar Mejia is a research associate at Public Policy Institute of California.

Viewpoints: Online courses and achievement gaps

Published: Thursday, May. 15, 2014 - 12:00 am

Online learning is a hot topic in higher education. Certainly the MOOCs, massive open online courses offered for free and featuring faculty from top universities in the country, have garnered a lot of attention. But perhaps more important has been the rise of online courses – for credit – in the nation’s accredited public colleges. Here in California the state’s community colleges have taken the lead, with course enrollments of about 1 million – more than in any other public higher education system in the nation.

Online learning offers the promise of expanded access to and success in higher education. To truly fulfill that promise, it must do so across the diverse population of California students. Currently, it’s falling short.

At the Public Policy Institute of California, we have recently completed an analysis of student access and success in online courses offered by the state’s community colleges, an important access point for students who are underrepresented in higher education. Online courses offer convenience to students who are often juggling family and work responsibilities.

The rapid growth in enrollment in online courses, from just a few thousand 10 years ago to about 1 million today, is a testament to the increasing demand for higher education. Enrollment has grown rapidly among all the state’s ethnic groups. But in a reflection of the state’s digital divide, growth among Latinos has lagged behind that of other groups.

Perhaps most troubling, achievement gaps are exacerbated in online courses. Completion and success rates for traditional courses are lower among Latino and African American students than among white and Asian students. That gap is even wider online. In traditional classes, the achievement gap between white and African American students is 12.9 percentage points. It is 17.5 percentage points in online courses.

Similarly, the gap between whites and Latino students is 7.3 percentage points in traditional courses, but is 9.8 percentage points in online courses. In contrast, white students tend to perform slightly better than Asian students in traditional courses, with an achievement gap of 1.4 percentage points. But they do slightly worse than Asian students in online courses, with an achievement gap of minus 1.4 percentage points.

Achievement gaps exist among other groups as well. Our research found that older students – those over 25 – perform better than younger students in traditional courses. This performance gap widens in online courses, from 10.2 percentage points to 14.8 points. The achievement gap between female and male students is 1.9 percentage points in traditional courses and 3.1 percentage points in online courses. In other words, when demographic groups differed in their performance in traditional courses, these differences tend to be magnified online.

For online learning to reach its full potential, California’s community colleges need deliberate strategies and plans to improve student outcomes in online courses, with a special focus on narrowing achievement gaps among underserved and underrepresented students. Community colleges need to ensure high standards of quality for online courses and provide professional development for faculty to design and deliver them. They also need to incorporate student support tools – both technical and instructional. The community colleges’ new Online Education Initiative is currently pursuing these strategies.

There are ways in which online learning has the untapped potential to yield better student outcomes than the traditional setting does. Online courses can enable instructors to track students’ progress in detail and provide more targeted and effective guidance – potentially offering customized instruction that can address achievement gaps.

Online learning is here to stay. With smart and informed policies and programs, it can reach many more students and do so much more effectively.


Hans Johnson is a Bren fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Marisol Cuellar Mejia is a research associate at PPIC.



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