Monday, March 25, 2013

Black Students Online

Columbia Teachers College recently issued a report that was designed to increase our understanding of the effectiveness of online programs, "Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas" (CCRC Working Paper No. 54, February 2013).

The report presents the results of a study of the performance of 20,000 students between 2004 and 2009 who were enrolled in traditional face-to-face courses and in online courses in community colleges and two year technical institutions in the State of Washington. For those of us who are especially concerned about black higher education, the report's most important findings are as follows:
  • All groups of students did better in face-to-face courses than in online courses.
     
  • Black students did not perform as well as white students or Asian students in the face-to-face courses
     
  • The gaps between the performances of black and white students and between black and Asian students were even wider in the online courses
The authors conclude their report by expressing their concern that the proliferation of online courses may widen the academic achievement gaps between black students and white students, and between black students and Asian students. My assessment of this finding can be summed up in two words ==> So what.

I say "so what" because the report did not tell us anything that anyone with a serious interest in online learning did not already know. 
  • We already knew that success in online courses requires better study habits, better time management skills, stronger motivation, and a greater capacity to work alone than face-to-face courses. All other things being equal, students who were better suited for online programs will do better than those who aren't.  But surprise, surprise. These same characteristics also enable students who have them to do better in face-to-face courses than those who don't.
     
  • But wait, didn't the report inform us that the black students didn't do as well as the white and Asian students in the face-to-face courses? So it's likely that their study habits, time management skills, motivation, and capacity to work alone also lagged behind those of the white and Asian students in these schools
     
  • In other words, the black students who fell behind their white and Asian counterparts in the face-to-face courses were doomed to fall even further behind in the online courses where the hurdles were even higher.
     
  • ... Unless ... unless the State of Washington's community colleges and technical institutes did the responsible thing ... unless they only allowed students who had the necessary study habits, time management skills, motivation, and capacity to work alone enroll in their online courses. Unfortunately the report presents no data to suggest that that the students were screened appropriately.
     
  • ... Or unless ... unless the authors recognized that all black students aren't the same, nor are all white students nor all Asian students. This blazing "insight" would have led them to compare the online performances of the black students with the online performances of the white and Asian students who performed at the same level as the black students in the  face-to-face courses ... but they didn't. They just lumped all of the black students into one barrel, all of the white students into another barrel, and all of the Asian students into a third barrel; then they weighed the barrels ... :-(

    For example, multiple regression analysis would have enabled the authors to compare the online performance of black students who did well in face-to-face courses with the online performance of white students who did well in face-to-face courses and with Asian students who did well in face-to-face courses.

    This same analysis would have also enabled the authors to compare the online performance of the black students who did poorly in face-to-face courses with the online performance of white and Asian students who also did poorly in face-to-face courses.

    If performance gaps between black, white, and Asian students appeared in the online courses that did not exist in the face-to-face courses, then the authors' findings would have been worth reading.
My final "so what" began as a gasp, but ended in the same cynical snarl. How was it possible for all groups of students to do less well in their online courses than in their face-to-face courses? By definition, the only thing they had in common was the online courses. Hmmmmm ...
  • By 2004 there may have been a few deluded Chairs and Deans who still believed that developing and teaching online courses should be an unpaid hobby for their underpaid instructors, but most academic administrators knew better. Nevertheless, they might not have had large enough training and course development budgets to put this understanding into action. 
     
  • Skill in the development and teaching of face-to-face courses does not automatically translate to the brave new world of online instruction. As one of my colleagues puts it, "The star player on a high school's field hockey team is unlikely to become the star player on its ice hockey team without a lot of retraining and practice." 
     
  • The authors of the Columbia report did not state that all of the instructors had received formal training in the development and teaching of online courses; nor did they distinguish the online courses that were developed and taught by trained and experienced instructors from those that were developed and taught by untrained and inexperienced instructors. Once again they just dumped everyone into the same barrel. Indeed, they presented no data at all about the training and experience of the online instructors.
     
  • Soooooo ... their finding that all groups of students did not do as well in online courses as in face-to-face courses might have an obvious explanation ==> Students don't do well in bad courses ... :-(
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