Online Classes and Poor Grades Don’t Have to Go Hand-in-hand

By Joe Bailey, Features Editor —

However any given student or teacher may feel about it, online learning has become a necessary part of the college experience in 2020. 

As of Feb. 2019 in the United States, one in three students was enrolled in at least one online course. In 2017, 6.6 million U.S. college students took online classes. Although these numbers have been steadily climbing ever since online options became available, the circumstances of a pandemic have forced floods of additional students to adopt this learning style in place of their usual in-person classes. 

With any set of options, it is usually useful to compare their advantages and drawbacks. Online courses have historically been derided for their inferior learning outcomes. This is not surprising considering the wealth of data that supports the claim that they lead to lower grades and a higher rate of failure. 

In a paper published by the American Economic Review, it was shown that taking a class online reduced a student’s chances of getting an “A” by 12%. The paper also demonstrated that online students were more likely to drop out than were their face-to-face counterparts. 

Despite these findings, a George Mason University paper, which cited multiple studies, emphasized how the results did not necessarily speak to the overall potential of online courses as a teaching method. Since each course and each subject are different, it is hard to say anything definitive about online learning on its own. 

Senior Instructional Developer at the Walker Center for Teaching and Learning, Mary Marr, said that some students get a lot out of the face-to-face time that they have with their professors under normal circumstances. She also pointed out that the flexibility offered by online education has given many students the opportunity to take courses when they normally would not have the time or resources to do so. 

Since success in any course is a two-way street, demanding engagement from students and teachers alike, Marr said that it may be the case that most students are simply not accustomed to the type of time management and self-discipline that asynchronous online courses often demand.

“If you have problems with time management or if you are disorganized, online is going to magnify that,” Marr said.

Switching to the perspective of educators, she said that a professor’s intuition about what makes an effective in-person class might not translate very well to courses which are conducted entirely over the internet. 

“In a face-to-face class, you might be more able to go with the flow each week and not necessarily have the whole semester planned out,” Marr said. “Whereas, in an online class, it’s best to have the structure in place from the very beginning.”

Marr regularly works with University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professors to help them structure their online courses with more rigor and consideration than they would otherwise. Since it would be easy for professors to assign the same online work every week, she emphasizes to them that variety in coursework is something that tends to fosters more engagement from students. 

“It’s best if you can create a little community where [students] feel like there’s another human being on the other end of these posts and announcements,” Marr said. 

She also noted that students who are not open to the differences that come with this style of learning are prone to struggle. 

A general stigma surrounding online education does, in fact, seem to exist among students in the United States. A study from the State University of West Georgia found that, while students agreed that online education was generally more convenient, they also saw it as holding less academic value than traditional teaching methods. 

If Marr is correct in her assessment that attitudes and tastes in part determine a student’s success in online education, it could add validity to the view that the content and structure of online courses are not solely to blame for the inferior results that we often see from them. 

“I think students would be really impressed to know how much faculty care about the experience that they’re giving, and how important it is to them that the students feel like they’re getting what they need in the class to be successful,” Marr said. 

If one positive thing can be gained from this pandemic, Marr said she thinks it will be the partial elimination of the stigma surrounding online learning. She is optimistic about future iterations of these courses, provided that professors and students are willing to fully utilize the tools available to them. 

Even without the influence of the virus, Marr said that there are students in situations that prevent them from coming to campus consistently. Students like this rely on these online courses to earn their degrees. 

“That need is not going to go away when Corona goes away,” Marr said. “So, if we can find that niche, it would help.”

Marr concluded by saying that the onus ultimately falls on students to let educators know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their online learning. Students can do this by taking surveys when they are presented, and by contacting professors directly. 

One lesson to be learned here might be that, when looking at education, one should not immediately take lower grades as a sign that a teaching method is of lesser value. Just like a difficult class, the hurdles that online learning presents are well worth overcoming.

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