Report: Hybrid courses won’t grow higher education access

Assessments of students' web skills should be mandatory, researchers say.

College courses that blend face-to-face instruction and online lessons may not be the panacea for expanding higher education, according to research that tracked the completion rates of online and traditional community college students.

There was an eight-point completion rate gap between web-based students and their classroom peers, according to the study, conducted by researchers from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) after evaluating more than 50,000 students at two-year Washington state colleges from 2004-09.

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Study authors Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars wrote that students who took entirely-online classes often struggled with “technical difficulties” and “a sense of social distance and isolation” as they completed coursework from home.

Online students also lacked the academic support traditional students receive on campus, the researchers wrote, adding that hybrid classes that combine the two types of learning settings could be a short-term answer for bridging the completion rate gap.

Hybrid courses, which require semi-frequent trips to campus for lectures and tutoring sessions, wouldn’t expand college access the way web-based learning would.

“We did not find any consistent or significant differences between hybrid and face-to-face completion rates, suggesting that hybrid courses may pose fewer challenges for students,” the report said. “Unlike online courses, however, hybrid courses do not offer complete freedom from geographic and temporal constraint, and thus do not hold out the same promise for dramatically improved access to postsecondary education.”

Smith Jaggars, in an eMail to eCampus News, said the inflexibility of hybrid–or “blended” courses–could hinder widespread implementation of the class model on many campuses.

“[Hybrid classes] don’t offer the same degree of convenience and flexibility as online courses, which may be why colleges have not really instituted them on a wide scale,” she said.

Support for classes that involve at least some traditional classroom-based education is shared by prospective college students along with current students enrolled in online classes.

Nineteen percent of students surveyed said they are enrolled in a hybrid class, while 33 percent said they would like to take one or more hybrid courses, according to a report on college student preferences published last year by Eduventures, a Boston-based higher-education consulting company.

The study suggests that some students are “forced into wholly online delivery because there is not enough supply of hybrid courses.”

Raymond Rose, a longtime online education developer who works with colleges to create online education programs, said the gap between supply and demand of hybrid classes could be the result of hardheadedness among some in higher education.

“A number of professors reject [the popularity of hybrid courses] because it doesn’t meet their belief system,” he said, adding that resistance remains a decade after online courses began gaining traction among college students. “Even though the train has left the station, there are still folks who aren’t doing anything with online education.”

The CCRC report said colleges and universities were too “passive” in providing help for students who take all their classes on the internet. The researchers urged campus decision makers to be more proactive in providing student and faculty supports.

Many community colleges studied by the CCRC researchers provide voluntary assessments for students considering online courses, with questions gauging a student’s technological sophistication, for example.

Smith Jaggars and Xu said community colleges should consider making these online-learning assessments mandatory.

If a student says in the assessment that her computer skills are limited, the college’s website could direct her to a schedule of that same course in a face-to-face setting during the upcoming semester.

Many students, even if they score poorly on the online-learning assessment, sign up for a web-based class because every seat in the traditional class has been taken.

The researchers said community college websites should automatically guide students to a page with instructions on how to schedule an appointment with a campus adviser who could help the student wade through other course options.

“Given that students in introductory courses may also be less-prepared to deal with the challenges of online learning than would be a seasoned student in an advanced course,” Smith Jaggars said, “I might say that in general, before colleges continue to put more introductory courses online, they need to take a step back and consider the outcomes of the students who are in those courses, and see whether they need to put additional student or instructor supports in place to help improve outcomes for their current online offerings.”

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