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Dive Brief:

  • Community college students who take courses entirely online are less likely to engage with their instructors and classmates than their peers who are enrolled in at least one in-person class, according to a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement.
  • Almost 3 in 5 online-only students, 58%, reported never discussing their academic work with instructors outside of class, the report found. That share dropped to 43% among in-person students.
  • Half of online-only students never collaborated with other students on projects during class, compared to 17% of those in-person, according to the report. And 65% of online-only students never worked on assignments with their peers outside of class. That compared to 40% of those who had some in-person courses.

Dive Insight:

Three years after the pandemic started, colleges that launched or bolstered their online offerings are still fine-tuning how to best serve virtual learners. Getting online-only students to feel involved and invested in their coursework has positive outcomes — CCCSE research found higher levels of engagement correlated with them reporting higher GPAs.

During spring 2022, researchers surveyed almost 83,000 students from colleges across 41 states. About 1 in 5 reported taking their courses entirely online. 

Online-only students were more likely to be nontraditional students, enrolled in college part time, and working 30 hours or more a week.

They were also less likely to cut class and more likely to come prepared than their in-person counterparts, the report found. 

Among these students, 87% reported never skipping class. In contrast, 64% of in-person students said the same thing. And 61% of online-only students said they never came to class without completing the assignments or readings, compared to 40% of in-person students.

However, online-only students reported being more challenged than their counterparts by instructors’ examinations and expectations, “which could account for their higher levels of attendance and preparedness,” the report states. 

Survey responses suggest instructors’ efforts to intentionally engage online students may make a difference. One student told researchers a course became his favorite based on the teacher’s approach.

“He posted lecture videos almost every day and did multiple Zoom calls and was just very interactive with us. It made it a lot easier to do the class and to learn,” the student said.

Another respondent shared a similar experience in a course, indicating that their level of engagement mirrored the instructor’s involvement. 

“If I never hear from the teacher, never see any assignments, I don’t think about the class,” the student said. 

Regardless of learning modality, student responses suggest they feel supported by their institutions, according to the report.

“Both groups feel that their colleges are committed to their success and are benefiting from services such as academic advising and career counseling at similar rates,” it said.

Among online-only students, 63% said an adviser helped them develop an academic plan before the end of their first terms. A similar share of students who were in person at least some of the time, 65%, said the same.