How online learning stacks up 

By Gabriel Lucich

Managing Editor

For millennia, learning has been a direct experience. The Al-Quaraouiyine was the world’s first, and oldest, continuously operating university, founded in Fez, Morocco in 859 CE. 

European colleges came a few hundred years later, and little changed — until recently. Nowadays, online learning platforms make up a large percentage of classes offered by many colleges.

Here at Clackamas Community College, results of this change vary. 

Ashley Sears, the director of institutional research and reporting, spent several days compiling the data and found that more students get better grades attending in-person classes.

First-time course participants for in-person classes got passing grades 68% of the time. Remote classes (online lecture with interaction) reported very similar numbers: 69%. Full asynchronous (essentially self-study) online courses showed lower success rates at 58%. 

Success rates actually fell the second time a course was taken in the same format, according to data from Sears. Online success fell to 42%, in-person to 52%, hybrid to 39% and remote to 54%, with the uncompleted and non-passing grades increasing accordingly. 

Online coursework has enabled people to receive a college education in areas that don’t have access to traditional schools and has allowed for education in times when we cannot meet in person due to quarantines or natural disasters. The variety of formats gives students a wide choice in the way they want to learn. 

Clackamas Community College’s vice president of instruction and student services, David Plotkin, oversees learning options available to students enrolled at the college. 

“I see it (online courses) as a tool, like any other educational tool, so I don’t see it as the saving grace for education,” said Plotkin, who’s in his ninth year at CCC. “I also don’t see it as something to be avoided. It is something we should use and be thoughtful about. Before I arrived here maybe 10% of classes were offered online. That switched during the pandemic when 90% of courses were online.”

Today 65% of classes are also available in an online format. 

“I’m not an evangelist for online learning, but we still have to deal with it,” Plotkin said. “We ask students which modality (in-person, hybrid, remote or asynchronous) they prefer. At the department level, the faculty know, ‘Well this is what my student needs.’ The business department, they see students reporting a much higher interest in online learning.”

From some of the information Plotkin shared it’s clear that some students prefer the online formats, but how does the outcome of those formats compare to in person courses?

In April 2024, 30 CCC students responded to a 14-question Clackamas Print survey about their online learning experience. The results were an even split between those who preferred online and those who preferred in-person classes. Most students also seemed to believe the grades they earned in the online classes were exactly what they would get in a classroom format. Many of the surveyed students also felt that they would benefit from more teacher interaction in the online courses and that they didn’t get enough feedback from the instructors.

 Katrina Boone, CCC’s associate dean for the division on institutional effectiveness and planning, said many instructors hadn’t taught online before the pandemic.

“We quickly created resources and tools, and there were already some, so we could just build on those. It made a great template for the staff to use. Not starting (as an institution) from ground-zero was great.”

“Now we take every opportunity to train them, during inservice. Prior to inservice, we have ramp-up-week and we equip the faculty to prepare for what we call regular substantive interaction. The faculty also does peer-to-peer evaluations of each other’s courses. The department chair can also use other resources to make their own assessments for evaluation.”

A 2017 study titled “Virtual Classrooms, How Online College Courses Affect Student Success,” from Stanford University’s Center for Educational Policy Analysis analyzed online and in-person learning and found an average grade one letter lower in online courses compared to in-person. 

The Economics of Education Review released data from a study by Dr. Di Xu and Shanna Smith-Jaggers of Columbia University that is more forgiving: just a difference of 0.3 on a four-point scale.

“It takes a lot of self-discipline and you need to be organized and structured. If you feel confident in those things, then online can definitely be for you. If you’re unsure, maybe try another type of course,” according to Dustin Bare, the director of student academic support services.

“With fully online, get in there, day one, week one. Look at the syllabus and start building a structure plan so you can work early, often and ahead in the course, because it is the only way that this works. Students that wait until the day it is due in an online course can be easily overwhelmed.”

As the person leading the advising team at CCC, Bare acknowledges that each student needs to be steered in the right direction regarding the class formats they choose. 

“When building a schedule, it’s important that we learn about the student. What are their strengths, what do they love, what do they like? Then we can help them build something that works best for them, but we’re not going to say that they can’t do anything, because really, it’s their academic journey. We just want to try to keep them on the road, and hopefully not on the shoulder,” Bare said.

One thing can be said of all the class formats that were examined: Teaching and advising students will always be a work in progress, regardless of how it happens.  

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Gabriel Lucich