In our recent report, Pennsylvania's Workforce: The Role of Community Colleges, PathWays PA explored the position of community colleges in Pennsylvania in educating our adult workforce. While we looked specifically at affordability, accessibility, and student readiness, we also included a special focus on distance learning as a potential solution to all three problems. In it, we concluded that while distance learning may solve some of the issues adult students face, partnerships to create a traditional classroom background to distance learning (such as short-term or developmental classes held by local organizations and supervised computer labs) would be needed to overcome other barriers.
A recent study featured in today's New York Times shows that other, less-anticipated barriers may also arise in the pursuit of distance learning. For one semester, the University of Florida offered the same lecture class on microeconomics in a classroom setting and online. When compiling grades at the end of the semester, Hispanic students in the online class performed at one grade level below Hispanic students in the classroom setting, while male students in the online class earned a half-grade lower than those in the classroom.
Without access to the study (which is available for free to NBER subscribers, corporate associates of the NBER, journalists, employees of the U.S. federal government, and residents of nearly any developing country or transition economy), it is difficult to determine some key points that may relate to the findings. For instance, if students self-selected into online versus classroom courses (as opposed to random assignment), there may be differences in each group's interest in the topic. Also, if any special skills were needed to access the online course, the lack of those skills may have affected grades. The authors of the report suggest that students may have chosen to watch all the online classes at once just before the exam rather than learning throughout the semester, which could also explain the lower grades.
Regardless of the circumstances, this study shows that more research must be done into distance learning, and suggests that greater interaction between students and teachers (such as weekly assignments) may be needed for successful distance courses.
Have any readers been involved in distance learning? Do you have suggestions on what might work here in Pennsylvania? Please tell us in the comments!