The purpose of this study was to explore the demographic and academic traits of Fall 1999 online students, to compare them with those of Santa Barbara City College and peer traditional students (students enrolled on campus in ACCT 230, for example, as opposed to students enrolled in ACCT 230 online) and to investigate the opinions of online students regarding their online course delivery experience. The study combined data from SBCC's student data system with students' responses to a questionnaire. The questionnaire was first mailed on October 20, 1999. A follow up was mailed on November 17, 1999. The response rate was 50.6% and the respondents were representative of the online student population.
The development and implementation of online course delivery is a challenging task for any institution. Santa Barbara City College has evolved considerably in only five semesters in the breath, quality and quantity of online course offerings. Student satisfaction with all aspects of online course delivery is very high and, as summarized below, most of them expressed interest in repeating the online format.
This study represents a first comprehensive attempt to evaluate online course delivery at SBCC and reflects data for one semester. In order to better understand and track the progress of online courses, further studies are needed that will compare data from multiple semesters. The findings of this study should be viewed as formative evaluation meant to inform the College community and facilitate improvement rather than summative conclusions leading to final decisions about the effectiveness of online course delivery. It is our intention to continue these studies and to incorporate a comparative approach of multiple semesters.
Course Offerings and Enrollment
From two online courses offered in Fall 1998, the College has expanded its online courses offerings to 28 different courses in Fall 1999 and 46 in Spring 2000. Of the Fall 1999 online courses, 17 were totally online (no on campus attendance required), 7 were hybrid (most instruction is online and some on campus attendance is required) and 4 were partially online (most instruction is on campus with an online instructional component). The growth in online course enrollment has also been very rapid, demonstrating that the College is responding to the needs and preferences of students and attracting students who would not have otherwise enrolled at the College. A total of 655 students enrolled in at least one online class in Spring 1999, 1,176 in Fall 1999, and 1,366 in Spring 2000 (as of March 23, 2000. It is estimated that the total number of students enrolled in online classes in Spring 2000 will reach 1,500).
10% of the Fall 1999 online students took an online course in prior semesters and 11% repeated the online experience in Spring 2000. 447 (38%) of the Fall 1999 online students enrolled only in online classes. These students would not have enrolled at the College if online delivery were not available. The unduplicated online enrollment as of the Fall 1999 census day of classes represented 7% of the total unduplicated headcount. This percentage suggests that online enrollment has already became an important part of the overall college enrollment.
Student Demographic Characteristics
The Fall 1999 online students have a slightly higher percentage of female students - 56% - compared to 50% for SBCC and 51% for peer on-campus courses. Overall, online students are comparable in terms of age to the college average and slightly older than students in peer on-campus courses. The ethnic distribution of online students closely mirrors that of SBCC and peer courses. This is an important finding of the study as the College strives to represent the ethnic and gender make up of the community, in general. The nature of course offerings in Fall 1999 skews the ethnic distribution by type of online class. The partially online classes have a higher representation of Hispanic students than the other online courses because these courses generally attract more minorities. Examples include English as a Second Language and Chicano Studies. The three demographic characteristics combined indicate an emerging pattern. Hybrid courses tend to consist of white females of an average age of 31. Totally online classes are still dominated by white females, younger, but there is a better gender balance than in hybrid courses. Partial courses are dominated by younger male students and, as explained earlier, there are more minority students than in the other types of online classes.
The area of student success reveals both areas where the online course delivery has made progress as well as some areas that need improvement. Overall, the course attrition is higher for online courses than for SBCC, in general, and for peer on-campus courses, in particular. Hybrid courses exhibit the highest course attrition rate by the census day of the courses. 47% of hybrid course students dropped their courses by the census day. However, the number of hybrid courses is significantly lower than that of totally online classes. Totally online courses, which represent the majority of online offerings, have a low attrition rate by census: 18% compared to 24% for the college and 23% for peer courses. The attrition after the census day of the courses is very similar for the three types of online courses: 23% for hybrid courses and 24% for totally online and partial courses. These rates are higher than the SBCC rate of 16% and the peer course rate of 15%. It is important to note that SBCC's attrition rates are lower than those experienced by other colleges offering online instruction. One factor that contributed to the higher after census attrition in Fall 1999 online courses compared to SBCC and peer courses is the phenomenon of "hidden" withdrawals. All courses have a deadline for dropping the class without a "W" being assigned to the permanent record of the student. In traditional on campus classes, faculty can easily identify and record "no show ups" – students who registered for the class but did not attend the first class sessions – and students who withdrew before the census day of the class. In online classes, however, students who are not aware of the drop deadline or who do not make their intention known to the instructor, can easily "hide" without the instructor being aware of their intention by the census day of the course. This explains the shift in withdrawals for totally online classes from before the census day of the course to after the census.
Trying to predict the probability that a student will withdraw from an online course has not been revealing. The various variables available in the student data system used in a logistic regression explained only 18% of the decision to drop an online course. Clearly, more research is needed to pinpoint more closely the reasons for student withdrawal, assuming that there are other, academically related reasons besides the personal ones.
In Fall 1999, 52% of online students received a passing grade (A, B, C, D or CR), compared to 73% of students in peer courses and 71% of SBCC students. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, this situation is common for many colleges offering online courses. Hybrid courses are an exception, with higher percentages of both successful and passing grades than the other two types, when Ws are included in calculation. The gap between online courses, the college and peer courses becomes smaller when the grade distribution is calculated only for those who persisted through the end of their courses (excluding Ws). Without Ws, online classes, generally, are still behind the college and peer course averages, but the improvement is visible. Again, this indicates that if the "hidden" withdrawal phenomenon is resolved, the grade distributions in online courses will more closely mirror those of traditional courses. Hybrid courses are the closest to the college and peer course averages if Ws are not included. This suggests that those who persist in this type of classes do better grade-wise than their counterparts in totally online and partial courses. This seems a normal consequence given that students in hybrid classes have higher GPAs than students in the other two types and have completed, on average, a larger number of units at SBCC. This indicates that these students have had better academic success at SBCC and have formed a discipline of study through their prior courses.
The student opinion and satisfaction survey reveals that online course delivery is highly responsive to the students' needs and preferences. Students praise the flexibility of the format, the quality of offerings, and the feedback from instructors. 68% of the respondents indicated that they like online courses equally or better than on campus classes. 73% of respondents indicated that they would take another online class and 21% were inclined but not positive that they would repeat the online format. 80% of respondents felt that the feedback they received from their instructors was very helpful and 45% indicated that the online interaction with other students is beneficial to their learning. 56% of the respondents took the courses to meet general education or major requirements.
Students were not exactly sure of the difference between online and traditional courses regarding the improved mastery of course content due to the online format. 31% of the respondents indicated that they understand ideas and concepts better than they would in a more traditional class and 39% of respondents said they are better able to visualize the ideas and concepts presented than they would in a more traditional format.
The majority of students do not feel that they had technical difficulties in accessing their online course materials. 77% of respondents felt they did not spend much time trying to access the course site on the Web and 85% thought that they have the necessary computer skills.
From the students' responses, it is evident that online courses achieve one of their major purposes, which is to provide the flexibility that many students need to engage in college education. 88% of the students indicated that they are better able to juggle their coursework with their other work and personal responsibilities than they would in a traditional format. 36% of the respondents indicated that they would not have taken the course if it were not available online and 55% would have taken it on campus only if it were offered at a convenient time. Their presence in the online class indicates that this format provided the time convenience students needed. 62% of the respondents worked at least 21 hours per week, with 46% working more than 30 hours per week.
Although 73% of the students indicated that they would characterize their online classes as at least equally demanding compared to on-campus courses, their grade expectations exceed the real outcome. 91% of the respondents thought they would receive a passing grade. This suggests that students believe online courses would be easier to pass then traditional classes. Students do not seem to engage enough in the general online orientation before beginning their courses. Of all online students who responded to the survey, 34% did not take the general online orientation and 40% of totally online students did not either. However, since each of the online courses offers its own online orientation, it is likely that students participate in the course specific orientation rather than the general one.
About the Author:
Dr. Andreea M. Serban is the Director of Institutional Assessment, Research and Planning at Santa Barbara City College. She has a Doctorate in Education and a Master of Science in Higher Education Administration from State University of New York at Albany and a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from University of Bucharest. She is a published author and associate editor of: Planning for Higher Education, the journal of Society for College and University Planning and The Professional File, a publication of the Association for Institutional Research. Policy analysis, higher education planning and finance, and applications of computer technologies complement her expertise in research and evaluation.