What We Are Learning From Online Education

In today’s global knowledge economy, if you don’t have an online education resource, you are in trouble.

This story first appeared on The Conversation.

Students are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about the universe online, but how did they acquire this knowledge? Social media is not just social; it is also a great way for people to meet new people, share ideas, and be exposed to information they would not ordinarily have. For example, last year my students were asked to create a word list of “life advice that works!” (this list became part of a humorous social media meme). It is a reflection of a growing trend among students – and adults – to create their own mix of opinions online as they are exposed to an increasing variety of perspectives. In this sense, social media is, perhaps, a powerful resource for forming a diverse group of online friendships.

But there are challenges too. If you are given an avalanche of information, how do you find the key facts? What do you consider to be important? Do you become an expert because you gather and discuss so much information or because you learn from people like you who are smart, well-spoken, and have clearly stated their opinions?

Case study: online education

The question of how to make sense of an online education has been one of curiosity in the online world for some time. In 2017 we explored the promise of an online learning experience in this article. Nearly four years later, what we are learning about online education has only increased in breadth and depth.

Photo: iStockphoto

To understand how people are learning online, researchers at my university explored the use of various websites by a group of low-income students to gain an understanding of issues that affect people and the environment. Specifically, the research sought to better understand why low-income students choose to pursue online education in lieu of a community college education.

There are several reasons why students select online learning. Often, low-income students are not even given the opportunity to attend college. With one exception, in 2018-19 only 7,546 students (low-income and non-low-income) will attend community colleges in Colorado. Students must depend on their high school grades and income to get accepted to community colleges – with few exceptions, low-income students are likely to have a lower GPA and/or less income than their affluent peers.

There are numerous barriers in obtaining a community college education, ranging from small class sizes and resources to an accessibility rate (the percentage of low-income students who get into the class they enrolled in) that consistently hovers around 14 percent. But another important barrier may be the amount of time and effort that low-income students must put into obtaining a college education. This requires students to have already done the heavy lifting to get their grades up; it requires parents and siblings to lift a greater part of the load as teachers often expect less from a wealthier family and can provide greater support for students. And it requires students to be willing to sacrifice a significant amount of their time in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

Because of these hardships, many low-income students opt for online education – so that they can get in to a college, do the heavy lifting, and not put such a significant amount of time into it.

Fortunately, there is real evidence that they are successfully completing their degrees through the Colorado Online Higher Education Network, or COLOR. In a 2016 study, COLOR researchers, using data from a cohort of more than 5000 low-income Colorado students, found that a student who attended a four-year school in Colorado received at least 55% of their credit from their online education. Those who took fewer than 10% of their courses online received only 9% of their credits from their virtual education. This figure was significantly higher than the 11% from other low-income students.

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