Photo by Samantha Decker

Photo by Samantha Decker

The increasing reliance on online courses at California’s community colleges is contributing to the grade gap between Latino and white students, according to a recent study that examined millions of student records.

The study, conducted by Raymond Kaupp, director of workforce development in Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz, found that while Latino students lag behind white students in the grades they get in regular courses, the gap is far wider in online courses.

Kaupp’s findings cast a shadow over the impact of online courses, which have become a standard feature of campus offerings and are growing in popularity at California’s 112 community colleges. (See this website on “California’s Virtual Campus” for online courses offered at community colleges and CSU and UC campuses.)

The performance of Latinos on online courses is especially worrisome. Almost two-thirds of college-bound Latino high school graduates start their college education at a community college. Because many of them work and have families, they are drawn to online courses and the flexibility they offer.

But Kaupp found that Latinos in the online classes were much less likely to pass, earned lower grades, and had withdrawal rates more than twice as high as Latinos in face-to-face sections of the same classes.

Kaupp’s study, titled The Gap Between Latino and White Student Achievement in Online Classes, which Kaupp conducted for his doctor of education dissertation at San Francisco State, has been accepted for publication in the The Journal of Applied Research in the Community College.

The gap between white and Latino students based on average grades exists in both face-to-face and distance learning courses. But the gap was 44% greater in online courses, the May 2011 study found.

“This ‘online penalty’ for all students, but particularly Latinos, is something that is systemic,” Kaupp said. “It’s (in) every community college in California.”

Kaupp says the impact of online classes is rooted in Latino attitudes toward education. “Relationships are important to Latino student learning,” he said, referring to research by University of Texas Professor Angela Valenzuela, backed up by interviews he conducted with Latino community college students as part of his study.

Valenzuela, in her book Subtractive Learning, writes about how schools as caring communities—in which personal relationships with teachers and others in the school community are a core part of school culture—are especially important for Latino students.  Those relationships are by the nature of online courses different from those in face-to-face ones.

There has been a huge increase in the number of students taking courses online in recent years. The percentage of students taking distance learning online courses has jumped from 12 percent to 24 percent of total enrollment between 2005 and 2010, according to an April, 2011 report prepared by the California Community College’s Chancellor’s Office. Over 33,000 course sections in 2009-10 were offered using the Internet.

In fact, as the report noted, almost half of the system’s community colleges offer degrees and certificates that can be obtained exclusively through distance education, almost all of which are delivered via the Internet.  At the same time, studies from states outside California indicate that the failure rates for community college students in online courses is higher than for regular courses.

Typically, online classes are delivered through a web-based course management system, which handles a variety of types of assignments such as quizzes, simple writing tasks, surveys, and discussions that are completed using a web interface.

The system also manages interactions between students and instructors. These can include live chat sessions, online discussion forums, and e-mail. Some instructors also use text and telephone. Community college guidelines call for “regular and effective contact” with instructors, Kaupp said, but beyond that it is up to the individual instructor or any college-specific guidelines.

Lake Tahoe Community College, for example, offers numerous online courses, including Elementary Statistics taught by math professor Larry Green. The course description describes all the ways students can access the material online, including online textbooks. Green delivers live webinars twice a week and holds online office hours after each webinar, in addition to having three regular office hours in his campus office. Students file their homework and quizzes online, but have to come to the campus to take the mid-term and final exams. In addition, students can get tutoring by going to the on-campus Math Success Center.

Kaupp says that course description sounds like an instructor who is doing all the right things to make online learning successful. However, he added, “very few instructors that I know use the full suite of technology to communicate with students.”

Several of the Latino students interviewed by Kaupp said they were disappointed with their level of communication with their online instructors.  “I feel like I don’t get to know the instructor as well as if I were in a classroom situation,” one Latina student told him partway through the semester. “I hardly know what he looks like. I don’t really know what he sounds like, how he lectures or anything except what is written.” The online experience, she said, “is just a lot of work…reading and trying to understand all the concepts. I definitely work better being in a classroom.”

Women also do worse in online courses than men, Kaupp found. Latinas’ online course grades suffered the most compared with grades Latinas received in face-to-face courses.

Kaupp’s study relied on 4.5 million Latino and white student records from May 2005 to July 2009 from community colleges throughout the state. He only looked at grades from classes where students had a choice of taking face-to-face or online sections. To calculate the grade gap, he assigned numerical values to grades that ranged from 0 for failing to 4 for an A.

Craig Hayward, director of Planning, Research and Knowledge Systems at Cabrillo College, did a multivariate statistical analysis of Kaupp’s study to try to rule out other factors that might account for the difference between Latino and white students.  Hayward’s analysis validated Kaupp’s findings that ethnicity and gender both had an effect on online course success, even after taking into account other factors such as age and economic status.

Willard Hom, director of Research, Analysis & Accountability at the California Community Colleges, called Kaupp’s study “a welcome effort.”  “Too little data collection and analysis have been done on this topic,” Hom said. Kaupp’s analysis “contributes in a very important way because state officials have had no resources with which to do a field study on the policy question of student interaction with online modes.”  But he  cautioned that it can be risky to generalize from a single study. “Additional studies of this topic will be necessary for policymakers to gain confidence in these findings,” he said.

As EdSource noted in a previous post, the Fresno Unified School District also grappled with this problem at a K-12 level when it offered online courses to high school students who often failed to complete their work when left to do it on their own. When the district decided to require students to take their courses in a classroom with a teacher available to answer their questions, their success rate increased dramatically.

However, this approach won’t work as well for community college students whose schedules make it more difficult if not impossible for them to be in a classroom during regular normal school hours.

Kaupp, however, believes that it is possible to develop positive teacher-student relationships even in online courses. “The institutional approach is to say that the students lack motivation, familiarity with technology, or English language skills,” he said. However, Kaupp found that at least the students he interviewed were motivated, comfortable with computers, and fluent in English. Students, who have grown up with the technology, know how to nurture online relationships, he said. “I’m not sure all teachers do.”

Kaupp said instructors might be treating online courses in a similar way as face-to-face courses instead of adjusting to the technology. “Having a student wait two or three days for a response to a question may seem similar to a face-to-face class that meets in person twice per week, but it is completely inappropriate for an online class, where relationships rely entirely on responsive communication, mediated by technology,” he said.

For more background on online courses at the California Community Colleges, see this April 2011 report.  

Also see studies from Washington State and Virginia on success rates in community college online courses. 


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