Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Possible Dissertation Topic?

Any Ed.D. students looking for a dissertation topic might want to check this out.

The recent IHE article about online classes rang true.  In the two-year sector, for instance, it showed that online enrollments are up, even as overall enrollments in the sector are down.  That has been true locally for years. Intriguingly, it also shows that the category of students who mix and match between online and classroom courses is much larger than the category who take only online, but that’s only true for the two-year sector.  In the four-years, students are likelier to be focused on one or the other. Only here are blended schedules common.

I’d guess that the unique preponderence of mixed-format students in this sector is probably a function of a few factors.  The most basic is that we run ample classes in both formats. That isn’t universal; when TB and I toured the U of Michigan, the tour guide mentioned that UM doesn’t teach online classes.  On the flip side, some institutions are entirely or almost entirely online, so they only attract students who either want that or are willing to try it. Most community colleges offer both, so students actually have the option of mixing.

On the ground, mixing makes sense for students with time-consuming jobs.  It allows students who can only be on campus two or three days a week to still cobble together full-time schedules.  Both anecdotally and judging by enrollment numbers, they tend to be strategic about which classes to take in which format.  

(Administratively, the rise of the mix-and-match schedule has created an ambiguity around defining “capacity.”  The mix-and-match students tend to favor the already-popular time slots for their in-person classes. If they cluster in the middle of the day, Monday through Thursday -- and they do -- then moving some of their loads online doesn’t really free up new capacity.  Fridays, evenings, and weekends are much quieter on campus than they were before, but that only represents new “capacity” in a theoretical sense. Fridays aren’t quiet because we’re failing to meet demand; they’re quiet because there isn’t much demand.)

I’m fascinated by the seeming contradiction that students tend to avoid blended classes, but they happily build blended schedules.  It isn’t obvious to me why they do it, but they do it consistently.

I’m also fascinated by the “online completion paradox,” which refers to data suggesting that completion rates for online courses are slightly lower than classroom courses, but that students who mix-and-match complete at higher rates than students who go entirely classroom.  I don’t know the extent to which that reflects self-selection -- the ambitious ones are the ones who bother to construct complicated schedules -- or the greater ability to manage logistical challenges, but it suggests that critiques based on course-level pass rates are missing something crucial.

I’ve long thought that community colleges should double down on the advantage they have, relative to four-year schools, of specialization.  A college that teaches hundreds of sections of English Composition or Intro to Sociology, and that doesn’t teach anything at the 300 or 400 level, has the opportunity to get particularly good at what it does.  A version of that argument may also apply to community colleges by virtue of the preponderance of mix-and-match students. We’re better positioned to identify the advantages of each format, and the optimal mix, than just about anybody else.  We mostly haven’t, in part because we’re strapped, and in part because other concerns always seem more urgent.

This may represent a research opportunity for any funders and/or partners who are willing to give it a shot.

Community colleges have shown the ability to innovate.  The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) developed at the Community College of Baltimore County stands as an example of what serious focus on a single issue can produce.  In this area, we’re innovating almost inadvertently. A little attention here could provide information that the University of Michigan, in its refusal to teach online, simply can’t.  

Just sayin’.

Thanks to IHE for highlighting what we do, even if that wasn’t really the point of the piece.  Grad students, have at it! Sometimes to find innovations, you just have to look more closely at what’s already there.