Taking an Online Course Does Not Impact Regular Classroom Performance

I’ve embarked on a smallish study where I’ve been looking at the impact of students participating in online courses. I’ll publish more complete details, including references to some of the relevant literature later, but wanted to post a bit of a teaser first.

Upstairs or down? ©2010 Brian Farrell

I decided to contrast the GPAs of students who are enrolled in 100% face-to-face (f2f) environments with students who are taking one online course, and the rest of their courses in a f2f setting versus the GPAs of the same students in the previous year. While I haven’t done a complete statistical analysis yet, the preliminary data is showing that there really isn’t a significant difference between theses two groups. In general, the whole group of students experiences a small drop in their GPA from tenth to eleventh grade, but the drop is pretty consistent. It was about a 4.5% drop for the 100% f2f group and a 3.5% drop for the mixed online and f2f group. I’d almost stretch this to say that taking an online course actually helps student performance in their f2f classes, but I’m not sure the data supports this big of a leap in reasoning.

I’m personally not surprised by these results, as I’ve been an online learner for years, but hope that they can add to the ammo when talking to parents about the potential ‘distraction’ and ‘juggling act’ of a student taking an online course. Online classes are different, but not different in a bad way.

Success in Online Learning = Communication

Online learning is not new. Despite some administrators’ passion for triumphing online courses as the next frontier in education, it really is a format that has been around for a decade or more (I took my first online course in 1999), even if it hasn’t necessarily been common in every school for as long.

Online learning is exciting in its flexibility and ability to connect students globally, but it comes with its own unique challenges and frustrations. I’ve been involved with online learning as a student, teacher, course designer, and coordinator, and so I feel that I have a fairly sound understanding of what these challenges are. Fundamentally, I believe that online learners most often run into trouble with their online courses because:

  • They fall behind or fail to plan their time effectively
  • They lose interest in their course
  • They don’t fully understand the content and ideas being communicated through their course

Don't lose the forest for the trees

Essentially, they fail to communicate on some level, and because online learners are often isolated from others, they can easily become lost and forgotten about if they don’t themselves speak up.

Effective communication then is the primary key to success for online learners. Students need to proactively communicate with their teachers to ensure that they are able to meet deadlines. They need to engage in the conversations and discussions in their class. And they need to seek clarification and answers when they run into problems. This is of course a two-way street; students need teachers and peers that are receptive to an effective online conversation, but they must be equally willing to foster this sort of dialogue.