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?