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Going the Distance? The Promise and Peril of Today’s Community College Trend

By Neal Modi | January 5, 2012 | No Comments

The community college needs to be a mainstay in our state.

In addition to its traditional functions of providing certificates and training for a host of high-demand careers, the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) also provides an affordable path to a four-year degree.  In fact, Northern Virginia Community College, with over 60,000 students, is the second-largest community college in America.  This is a sign of how well attended and reputable our community colleges have become.

Nevertheless, while our community colleges are an inexpensive gateway to both traditional four-year schools and profitable careers, they also are gatekeepers.  The fact is that the trend toward “distance learning,” while convenient and practical, is hindering many community college students from realizing their potential and goals.

Governor McDonnell, alongside our public institution’s presidents and boards, want more students to take advantage of community colleges.  Families, too, have taken notice of the reduced costs of attending community colleges and Virginia’s favorable program for allowing students to transfer to four-year institutions (if they have a requisite GPA and demonstrate good behavior).  Yet, this motivation to attend VCCS schools can produce little unless our community colleges work well.

In a report published last fall, researchers at Columbia University investigated the effectiveness of distance learning in Virginia’s community colleges.  They found that key introductory courses taken via distance learning (or online) negatively affect student performance.

Students who took online coursework early had a diminished probability of returning to school in later semesters and the more distance learning credits a student enrolled in, the less likely he or she would transfer to a four-year institution or complete a certificate.  And in comparison to face-to-face instruction, distance learning led to a greater number of students failing or withdrawing from such courses.

Certainly, these findings should give us pause and force community college leaders to re-evaluate their teaching methods, especially the increasing dependence on distance learning classes, particularly at the introductory level.

Community college students face a variety of challenges as they attempt to complete coursework and progress towards a degree or certificate. Work, family, and financial obligations can compromise students’ academic performance, as can underpreparation for college-level work.  Thus, it should come as little surprise that distance learning courses, which offer little to no instructional or institutional support for students to succeed, are producing negative returns.

Indeed, this learning modality may be contributing to the well-documented “cooling out” phenomenon first observed by sociologist Burton Clark. ‘Cooling out’ is an informal set of practices widespread in junior and community colleges that pushes students out of school after they realize that their educational goals are not plausible or attainable because of the lack of structural support to guide students through the system.  Therefore, early community college students, in a way, are the most vulnerable members of our higher education system.

Providing proper instruction, solid academic guidance, and constant communication between student and school is key to students’ progress in the community college and beyond.  As the researchers from Columbia University point out, distance learning may be more harmful than productive.  It is high time, then, to re-evaluate online instruction and re-focus on sound, face-to-face instruction and guidance.

Surely, this is a lesson worth learning.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of members of the NDP Steering Committee.



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