Poll: Online Classes Provide Flexibility

By Steven Cooper in News

In 2013, more than 7.1 million higher education students nationwide were enrolled in an online class. Last quarter, 2,980 of those students were enrolled at Clark. Result based on a 465-student online poll conducted by The Independent from Jan. 7-12

Across the nation, online classes are increasing in popularity. The national numbers referenced above were collected by the College Board and published in 2013 by the Babson Survey Research Group. The same report states that enrollment in online classes increased 6.1 percent from the previous year—while overall enrollment increased only 1.2 percent.

During the 2009-2010 school year, Clark offered 553 classes online. Last year they offered 696.

However, in an online student poll conducted by The Independent, while 91 percent of respondents indicated they like Clark’s online learning system Canvas, only 27 percent said they preferred online to in-person classes. Differing factors play a role in whether an online class is the right choice for a student.

Professor and English Adjunct Coordinator Marylynne Diggs said online classes are often more difficult for students than face-to-face classes. “There is a lot more individual motivation, discipline, and self-teaching necessary in online,” Diggs said.

However, Diggs said for students who are motivated, online classes can solve many problems.

“I think the main advantage to online classes is for students who have schedule issues,” she said. “Maybe they work nights and take care of their children during the day, or they live in remote sections of our service district.”

Student poll responses indicated this is the case for many students. Student Patricia Hagensen said, “I couldn’t take classes otherwise. Work schedule, husband’s work schedule, distance from the main campus, driving after dark –all these preclude in-person attendance.”

Another anonymous student said, “While I like learning online and in-person nearly equally, I live 35 miles from Clark’s main campus, making it easier to take online courses when I can and schedule on-campus courses together and on the same days.”

The difference in student success rates between online and face-to-face classes varies greatly depending on the class in question. Clark defines the success rate as the percentage of students who earn a C or better.

Data collected by Clark shows that over the last five years online English 102 students were 3.7 percent less likely than other students to successfully complete the course, with an average success rate of 71.2 percent.

In contrast, online students in Psychology 100 were 10.3 percent more likely to successfully complete their course, with a success rate of 87.6 percent.

“I think that may be, to some extent, connected with the difference between learning content and learning a skill,” Diggs said. “English and math are both skill, and PSYC is content.”

College data shows that averaged across all classes, students have a higher success rate in online classes. In fall 2014, students enrolled in online classes for which there was a face-to-face equivalent had an average success rate of 78 percent—2 percent higher than students in face-to-face and web-enhanced classes. Both groups had an average GPA of 2.5.

According to Kael Godwin, who conducts research and analytics in Clark’s Planning and Effectiveness office, one explanation for the slight percentage difference could be the type of people taking online classes. Eighty-one percent of online students tested into English 101, but only 73 percent of face-to-face and web-enhanced students tested into the same class. In other words, the most skilled students in reading and writing are more likely than other students to enroll online.

For some faculty, online classes are more convenient to teach.

“Adjunct faculty love online classes,” Diggs said. “If you’re going to teach at two or three different campuses, it’s really helpful for one of those campuses to be virtual.”

Diggs said that while most online instructors also teach classes face-to-face, Clark employs some instructors that teach almost entirely online and may not even live locally.

According to Diggs, the Canvas platform is a big improvement from past platforms.

“They’ve been doing [online classes] at least to some extent since 1998 when I arrived. We had something before Blackboard called WebCT,” Diggs said. “But this is absolutely the most intuitive learning management system I’ve seen, and the one that makes it the easiest to integrate other things.”

Most students agreed in the poll responses, but some suggested areas for improvement. Common comments were that it was hard to decipher between student email and Canvas’ messaging system, and that it’s sometimes hard to find assignments in the Canvas modules to see what is due.

Other students complained that online instructors are hard to contact or don’t give enough feedback.

Vice President of Instruction Tim Cook said online instructors are expected to give feedback as they would in a face-to-face class.

“If a student felt the instructor was not providing feedback, I would encourage them to email the instructor and follow up with the division chair if the issue persists,” Cook said.

The majority of student responses said they liked online classes, but they preferred face-to-face because of the social interaction. Student Lance Conley said, “I would say that every teacher I have had a face-to-face class with can tell you my name, can tell you where I work, can tell you a little about my family. Online you don’t get any of that connection.”

A minority of students, however, said the flexibility found online outweighed the benefits of face-to-face.

One anonymous student said, “I can stay home in my jammies with my coffee nearby and I can give my dog some pats on the head.”

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