Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Online as Last Resort

Okay, it’s late August, your college has a policy that nothing outside of a few specialized classes (clinicals, studios, labs, and developmental, mostly) runs with fewer than fifteen students. You have an outlying section with seven students. Will it run?

The bane of administration is having to predict the future like that over and over again.

Long-term patterns are helpful, but they work best in the middle, not at the margins. If you’re running hundreds of sections overall, then a percentage point shift is, by itself, enough to affect multiple sections. And a single point is well within normal variation.

(This year we have the additional consideration of coming down from the 2009 spike, making the margin of error larger than usual.)

I’m noticing that this year, even more than last year, the usual best-guesses are of little help when applied to online classes. Simply put, they fill later and more erratically.

It’s looking like the online classes consist of two relatively distinct groups of students. The first groups actively seeks out online classes, whether for pedagogical preference or for work-life scheduling reasons. The second group is late-registering students who discover that all the most popular timeslots have filled by August, so they take online as a last resort.

If that’s the way of things, then I think we need to introduce a control variable into any discussion of comparative pass rates. We need to control for late registration.

Nationally, students who register last are far less likely to succeed than those who register months in advance. That makes sense, if you think about it. In practical terms, it’s easier to get the more convenient sections if you register early, and you have more time to get your transportation, work, and childcare arrangements in place. And psychologically, the early registrants are usually the more driven and conscientious students, who tend to do better anyway. A straight-up comparison of a prime time classroom section to its online counterpart may be misleading, if the prime time class filled with type A students three months early and the online section filled at the last minute. At that point, you aren’t seeing what you think you’re seeing.

At one level, this may be a passing problem. As long as online education remains the side dish, it will be prone to irregularities like this. As it becomes more integrated into the college offerings, some level of routine will start to develop.

I guess we could respond with an earlier registration deadline for online courses, or even an earlier deadline altogether. Heaven knows that would make certain kinds of management easier. If we had the funding base to do that and not die, there would be a compelling argument for it. But in this climate, as tuition and fees occupy an ever-larger percentage of the budget, closing too soon would be devastating.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found the same phenomenon on your campus? Is there a more elegant way around it that I’m not seeing?

"Okay, it’s late August, your college has a policy that nothing outside of a few specialized classes (clinicals, studios, labs, and developmental, mostly) runs with fewer than fifteen students."

How do you do it? Our developmentals average 30 per section with no relief in sight.
I've yet to see that problem with our onlines but do see it with face to face classes. We have changed our internal policy that staff are not to register students within a week of classes starting. Students can do it themselves but we warn them that it's a bad idea.

Can't you split up the low enrolled onlines and roll them into other sections?
Add another element to this: at least on our campus, it is very common for student evals to be much worse in online sections, than in face to face sections. This appears true no matter the caliber of the instructor or content (put our best, most conscientious people online and they still get worse reviews than in traditional classes). However, those online class student evals are treated the same way as traditional class evals, often to the detriment of an instructor who agrees to teach online. Especially an untenured/non-tenure instructor.

I had thought it was mostly a result of the lack of a personal bond - no amount of video, live chat, and "interactive discussion" in an online class will make the same human connection as actually meeting each other. But maybe it is also a function of the late-registrant/unsuccessful student selection bias in online classes? We know that student evals can be correlated with student success/grades, so a class packed with under-performing last-resort students probably has a noticeable impact on how they rate their instructor even after controlling for other factors.
This problem is very bad in Australia, and especially in universities where students have very high levels of paid employment. Students jump late into online classes, but are already too busy to catch up or even cope, and then they send negative feedback -- but more importantly, they really hate themselves.

The answer I think is to support your online teaching staff to develop really strong, effective orientation documentation and procedures, and then to encourage them to use peer mentoring among students so that the latecomers can be helped to rejoin the group by early adopter students who can get some kind of grade recognition for playing this role.
Of course we have the same phenomenon. Why should online classes be any different than f2f classes? They contain students, and student's attitudes and habits are independent of course format. If anything, there is a second category that is more common on line, and that is the ones with "work-life scheduling" problems. Some want to shift their full workload to a convenient time, but many think that they can do much less work in an on-line class.

However, at my CC the on-line classes fill early and most are not available to procrastinators. However, filling a class with students who don't have time to do the work can be just as risky as filling a class with ones who don't feel like learning.

There is talk about creating a test that might exclude students with certain failing styles from distance ed classes, but I am not optimistic because of the competing pressure to fill classes.
To Anonymous@4:52AM

I think DD means that developmental classes are protected against being canceled for low enrollment. Our CC has a similar policy for a wide range of classes (including high-end math) that guarantees a predictable schedule for long-term student planning purposes.

Presumably there are some small sections because DD uses a data-driven approach (alluded to in this blog entry) to predict demand and have sections in place for a variety of times and formats to meet the needs of students. Not all colleges do this, and things like the Depression of 2008 can skew that planning, but you don't want to slam the door on students who signed up in good faith and might even thrive in a 12-student classroom.
There's some definite anecdotal evidence to support your arguments. We run multiple sections of a given course, and section 1 will fill before section 2, and so on. So sure enough, if I am teaching both section 1 and section 8, then 1 (which had the early-registering students) generally has much higher grades and lower dropout rates than section 8 (which was probably added at the last minute after prior sections filled).

I'm not sure that I know what the solution is here. My CC subscribes to the SmarterMeasure test, which is designed to help students assess if they are ready for online learning based on their self-reported motivation, persistence, technology skills, time available for the course, etc. Students are encouraged to take it (and I require it in my class), but it's up to the students (and advisers, if they are involved) to make use of the data. If a student scores low but decides to take online courses anyway, then there's nothing to stop them.

Part of the problem is that the add/drop window is short enough (particularly in the 8-week-or-less sections) that students are well past the drop date before they realize they've gotten in over their heads. I'm not sure what the solution is though, other than maybe starting online courses a week earlier so that students could start the course, and if it's not for them then they would still have time to drop and try to get into a classroom section.
I'm shocked that the online sections at your college fill late and more erratically. At our college, our online courses fill fast and furious, regardless of the term. Actually, at both of my colleges where I've taught, that's been the case. If anything, students seeking online are stuck with a hybrid course or a face-to-face evening course that doesn't really fit their schedule.

I would love to say that the early fills-fast tendencies of our online classes means that those students are the most prepared, but is definitely not the case. Some are, but some definitely do not belong in an online classroom.

It's unfortunate that we can't have a readiness screening process for online courses, but I don't believe we can exclude students from a delivery method in the same way we can require entrance testing for, say, English 101.

The only possible solution is for students to have to contact the instructor directly and look at the syllabus ahead of time to ensure that this is the right delivery method for them. Even still, this could be an unwieldy request. Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof
We clearly late enrollment as a significant determining factor in low student success. This is most apparent when we create a new course section immediately before classes begin. That section inevitably has a higher drop-out rate and significantly lower grades than other sections of the same course, taught by the same instructor.

Our online courses tend to fill early, so it is rare to see such courses with late enrollees.

We too are toying with an enrollment deadline. Right now, you can enroll in anything up through the first week of classes.
We had registration stop the week before classes started and then would allow instructors to distribute add codes to students after the first day of class if there was still room in existing sections. This gave us a "quiet" week to sort out our registration issues and provided incentive for students to get themselves together before the last minute. There's no reason a CC couldn't do the same thing - students who don't know they need a class until the week before classes start could still enroll in some open sections.

In general, I'd pay less attention to the individual section numbers and more to the student faculty ratio. If you can keep your student faculty ratio over a certain number, your financial house will be in order irrespective of whether or not a few low enrolled sections run. This would give departments incentives to shift resources around to accommodate the occasional low enrolled section and would make enrollment "bright line" numbers matter less. If faculty complain that this represents a workload issue, explain to them that it will allow faculty to have more predictable schedules if they happen to be teaching a smaller class.
The difference between Australian higher ed and other places turns out not to be the fabulous wildlife on campus.

It's the fact that down here our students can jump from course to course right up to the end of the second week of semester, and with a signature of permission which is easy to get, some are still moving right up to the end of week four, where the first thing they'll encounter is an assessment task on material they've never seen. But here's the killer: it's very rare indeed that we have a cap on classes. So we are never full.

Imagine being at a major international airport where booking is replaced by passengers running from plane to plane to see which one they like, which one has the best inflight entertainment, which one might take them somewhere they want to go, which one has a spare seat and one for their friend -- and they're still changing seats after the plane is on the runway, or even in the air. So, you know, things could be worse.
Let them run it this year and tell the department it can't run again for another year, and if it doesn't get the full enrollment then it never runs again
The guy is totally just, and there is no skepticism.
It will not succeed in actual fact, that is what I think.
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