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College Freshmen Fail Online Courses More Often, Study Shows

Students in general can struggle in their freshman year, but they do worse online, coming up on the wrong end of the grade sheet 32 percent of the time.

(TNS) -- Students in the UNC system’s online courses are performing worse in them, on average, than their colleagues in traditional classroom settings, a report to the Board of Governors says.

Freshmen in particular seem to have more trouble, dropping online classes or taking a D or F in them more often than they do in same-course campus offerings.

Drop-or-fail discrepancies additionally aren’t “consistent across all disciplines,” said Kate Henz, the system’s associate vice president for academic policy, planning and analysis.”

“This is not great,” she said. “We need to get to the bottom of this.”

The report compared performance figures from the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years and found that 11 broad types of courses had significant performance discrepancies in both areas.

The largest were in engineering and math disciplines, but the humanities, social sciences and trades all showed some too.

Freshman in general can struggle even in traditional, face-to-face classes. They drop, fail or just barely pass traditional courses that can be compared with an online offering at a 20-percent rate.

But they do worse online, coming up on the wrong end of the grade sheet 32 percent of the time.

Henz noted that it usually doesn’t come down to a professor having to hand out a low grade, as “most students, if they get in trouble in a class” will simply drop it.

More broadly, the report noted that online courses are more popular with part-time students and older, “non-traditional” ones over age 24.

Across the system, about two in five of the system’s students took an online course in 2013-14. That’s roughly 94,000 students, versus nearly 150,000 who stuck to traditional classroom offerings.

That figure “underscores the scale at which our online programs are operating and the success we’ve had in solving an access problem in the state,” said Matthew Rascoff, the system’s vice president for technology-based learning.

“The classic educational tri-lemma says it’s really hard to get low cost, access and high quality going on at the same time,” he added. “We’ve done a good job on access, an OK job on cost and have work to do on quality.”

To improve, system officials intend to look harder at courses to see if they can figure out why the ones that don’t seem to work as well as their traditional counterparts are performing that way.

They also are coming to believe online students have to be treated as “an at-risk population,” to back up with advising and other support systems, Rascoff said.

All told, the system’s 16 universities provided 12.2 percent of their total credit hours online in 2013-14.

Four schools — East Carolina University, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University and UNC Pembroke — topped the 20-percent mark in the proportion of credit hours their professors taught online.

UNC-Chapel Hill was near the other end of the scale, offering only 3.8 percent its 2013-14 credit hours online. N.C. Central University was slightly above the system average, offering 14.9 percent of its credits online in 2013-14.

©2015 The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.