Campuses are back open as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, but plenty of students continue to take classes online — especially at community colleges. But are these online students as engaged as those in traditional classes?
That was the research question posed in the latest Community College Survey of Student Engagement, a large-scale survey of more than 82,000 students across 181 community colleges.
The results of the survey, released this week, showed that students who took courses exclusively online were less likely to communicate with instructors and other students than students who take at least some courses in person.
For example, half of online-only students said they never work on projects with other students, compared to 17 percent of students who don’t only take online courses.
And 58 percent of online-only students reported that they never discuss their classes with instructors outside of class time, compared to 43 percent of those who take at least some in-person classes.
Linda Garcia, executive director of the survey effort, said she hopes these findings are a “conversation-starter” for faculty about how to better design online courses to encourage interaction.
“It’s important for faculty to be prepared to teach online,” Garcia told EdSurge. “There’s still a lot of students taking online courses, but they’re just wanting more interactions.”
Though many professors improved their online teaching during the pandemic, Garcia said it can be challenging to get in the habit of using features like breakout rooms in Zoom to get students talking to each other. “When you’re face to face, it’s a lot easier for an instructor to say, ‘OK, we’re going to work in teams,’” she explained.
Student testimonies in the report bear this out. As one student put it, “I think my level of engagement depends on the course because if the teacher’s more involved, I’m definitely more engaged. If I never hear from the teacher, never see any assignments, I don’t think about the class.”
The survey did find some positives about online courses. For one thing, students taking courses exclusively online had better attendance than students with some in-person courses. Garcia said that makes sense, since getting to a classroom can involve a drive or bus ride, and often students choose online courses so they can tune in from home.
And students taking courses only online were more likely to report feeling challenged by their coursework than other students.
The survey was administered in the spring of 2022, and one in five of those who took the survey reported taking only online courses.
Each year leaders of the survey add a new focus area based on comments from community college leaders. The plan for the next installment is to ask about student mental health, Garcia said.