I reviewed the article by DiXu and Jagers (2014) titled “Performance Gaps Between Online and Face-to-Face Courses: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas.” I was interested in this article after reading the USDOE (2010) meta-analysis of online learning, which presented the idea that differences in content could have significant results in learner outcomes in an online environment. This article looks specifically at the interaction between differences in content and also addresses the differences between learner types and their success in this environment. As an educator working in a district with a pronounced achievement gap between the majority and minority population, I was particularly interested in finding out if online education can help reduce this gap or if it might in fact be increasing the gap.
Di Xu & Jaggars (2014) conducted a large scale (500,000 courses taken by over 40,000 students) analysis of content and learner type comparisons from community and technical colleges in Washington State. Students were tracked from the fall of 2004 to Spring of 2009 for course persistence and grade performance. The authors chose course persistence and grade as fundamental measures of success for community college students reasoning that students who “withdraw from a course mid-semester run the very real risk of never returning to successfully complete the course, thereby prohibiting progression to the next course in the sequence”(Di Xu & Jaggars 2014). Results from this study, showed an “online performance gap” across the board, indicating that all types of students performed more poorly in online courses than they did in face-to-face courses, implying that online instruction is more difficult for the average student. This gap was especially pronounced for “males, younger students, Black students, and students with a lower prior gpa” (Di Xu & Jaggars 2014). Even more worrisome was the finding that in courses where student subgroups differed in terms of their face-to-face course outcomes, those same differences tended to be exacerbated in online courses. The study also found noticeable gaps between subject areas taught. Online courses in the following subject areas demonstrated significant online performance gaps: the social sciences (e.g. anthropology, philosophy, and psychology) and the applied professions (business, law, and nursing). The authors proposed that these subject areas may require a high degree of hands-on demonstration and practice or intensive student–instructor interactions and student–student discussions, which may be more difficult to effectively implement in the online context (Di Xu & Jaggars 2014). I wonder if some of these gaps would have narrowed if a blended approach would have been utilized.
I was very impressed by the way the authors conducted their analysis. I did not see many flaws to the design of this study, other than it could be expanded to other states, types or educational institutions and perhaps younger age groups. With the multitude of possible confounding factors that could be influencing a dataset such as this one, the authors made a concerted effort to control for many of those factors. The authors controlled for differences amongst courses within a particular subject and variation in instructional quality and support. They also built in robustness checks to address effects that might be a result of whether the student had previously taken an online course, if they were employed while they were taking the course and how many hours they may have been working while taking the course. This was especially important given that many of the students in this study were considered “non-traditional” students (e.g. over 25 and balancing work, family and their education).
This study has some serious implications for the way we use online education in the future. In my own case, as an educator working in a district that is actively trying to address a pronounced achievement gap between the largely caucasian majority and its minority Latino student population, I am concerned what the results of this study indicate. If the pattern observed applies to K-12 students, it implies as the author suggests “that the continued expansion of online learning could strengthen, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity”. Working in a district with a one-to-one initiative, can we point to this new use of technology as a means to widening the gap or closing it. I would like to think that there are steps we can take to better these programs, rather than assuming they will broaden the gap. The authors suggest we take at least three approaches to improving online performance: screening, early warning, and scaffolding. For screening, schools could limit or eliminate the supply of online sections for course subjects where students do poorly. Scaffolding could also be increased, by incorporating the teaching of self-directed learning skills into courses. This idea has the greatest potential, within secondary schools and I would propose that it become part of the curriculum at this level, so that students would find more success at the college level. As the authors point out “these skills may not only help close the online performance gap, but may also improve students’ overall performance and long-term persistence in college”(Di Xu & Jaggars 2014).
Di Xu, & Jaggars, S. S. (2014). Performance Gaps Between Online and Face-to-Face Courses: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas. Journal of Higher Education, 85(5), 633–659.