John Adsit wrote a recent article (“No Satisfaction in Finding on Online vs. Traditional Science Classes,” 22 Oct. 2012) commenting on a study by the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s study showing, among other things, no significant difference in long-term college grades and GPA when comparing community college students who had taken their introductory science courses online with those who had taken them in the traditional community college classroom (Epper, 18 Oct. 2012). I had initially posted a response to John’s article, and was asked by the editor of ETCJ to expand it into an article, which I greatly appreciate. In short, it seems to me that John has largely missed the mark with regard to the Colorado study and its implications.
For many years, as an online educator in the community college system in Colorado, I have listened to traditional colleagues claim as a fact that students taking online science courses are not as well-prepared and, in fact, are at a disadvantage, compared to traditional students. The traditional model was held up as the standard, without proof, even though, as John points out in his post, there have been studies indicating that the traditional educational model does not work as well as it should in the first two years of college.
John’s initial response to the Colorado study is to merely sneer at the demonstrated equivalence of online vs. traditional science classes at the community college level by stating that “students in general learned very little in the first two years of college,” relying on the excellent analysis in Academically Adrift. While I cannot dispute the findings in that report, I do have an important question about its true meaning: Do we have proof that college education has ever been different? While it may indeed be a cause for alarm, could it be that the first two years of college are a time when students undergo a wide range of mental and personal transformations in readiness for the culminating two or three years before they earn their degree? Isn’t it true that the first two years of college are often filled with fairly bland courses in preparation for study in one’s chosen field of interest?
After all, the U.S. still possesses an undergraduate educational system that many students from around the world envy. According to a report last year from the Institute of International Education, the number of international students enrolled at U.S. colleges is 32 percent higher than it was a decade ago, and this is largely due to undergraduate enrollment of Chinese students.
I also take issue with John’s statement about America’s Lab Report and its findings. While this study is a striking indictment of our high school science programs, John’s assertion that it pertains directly to college programs is completely unwarranted and unsupported by the study itself. In fact, studies like America’s Lab Report make the results of the comparison study in Colorado even more impressive, in my opinion. In spite of the uniformly terrible preparation in sciences at the high school level, these students go on to perform fairly well at four-year colleges after preparation at the community college level.
For some reason, John then leaps from high school to a discussion and critique of large lecture courses at four-year schools when this was not in the scope of the study at all. The study compared online introductory science courses (with integrated lab components, by the way) to traditional community college courses, which have small numbers of students and which may or may not have an integrated lab component. The grade and GPA performance of students from each type of introductory course were then examined as they proceeded through the next two years of school at four-year institutions in Colorado.
While John rightly points to the lackluster learning that often takes place in the first two years of college, that is also not the point of this study. What the study shows is that online students do reasonably (and indistinguishably) well during the last two years of college compared with traditional community college students. Is John’s assertion, then, that the entire college experience in the U.S. is a waste of time? I hope not, and I’m sure the over 700,000 students from around the world who flock to the U.S. college system each year would agree.
I see studies like this one as a first step in establishing the legitimacy of online educational experiences in the sciences. Rather than criticizing each other, the traditional and online communities should be focused on working together to make the educational experience for our students the best it can be. One of the many ways we are attempting to improve online science education in the Colorado Community College System is through a program called the North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO).
This program, which was initially funded by the Gates Foundation and was recently awarded a large grant from the Department of Labor under the TAACCCT program, makes remote access to real scientific instrumentation available through the internet and allows students to control the instruments and collect real data as if they were physically in the laboratory. In conjunction with other modes of delivery, like at-home laboratory kits, we are attempting to give students a first year science education that is as authentic and as rigorous as possible.
The fact is that online instruction meets a real need among the student populace and will not be going away any time soon. Students are not forced to sign up for online courses – they take them for many reasons related to their own situations and needs. Should the online programs be outperforming the traditional programs? Perhaps, but that is not the argument I would prefer to have. Rather, I hope that the entire spectrum of educational opportunities can serve our students well and produce the educated populace that is the only hope for a prosperous future.
Dan Branan is currently the North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO) Lab Director for the Colorado Community College System. He provides leadership and coordination for the CCCS discipline teams that work on this project. He also teaches chemistry for Colorado Community Colleges Online. Previously, he served as Assistant Professor of Chemistry (1996–99, 2004–2011), Co-Director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (2005–2007) and Research Director for the Institute for Information Technology Applications (2005–2007), all at the USAF Academy; he was an active-duty Air Force officer for 20 years. Branan received his B.S. in chemistry from the University of South Alabama, his M.S. in inorganic chemistry from the Ohio State University, and his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Denver.
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