The Online Coursework Debate: Do Online Classes Lead to Better Graduation Rates?

Many schools have reported better graduation rates after implementing online coursework. This has been particularly true for struggling schools with high dropout rates. Yet critics of online courses find fault in the data and suggest that these successes aren't all they seem.

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Understanding the Increase

Schools underperform for a variety of reasons. They frequently lack the funding to provide adequate resources for their students, which can result in overcrowded classes in which students lack the individual attention that might help them succeed. Due to failure and dropout rates, these schools often struggle to see half of their students graduate.

For some of these underperforming schools, online courses provide a path to redemption. They can ease the strain on overcrowded classrooms - rather than forcing over 30 students into a single room, online courses enable schools to have students work more independently while being overseen by an online instructor or team of instructors.

Online courses also provide students who have failed in a face-to-face class with a chance to retake the course. This system, known as credit recovery, keeps students in school who might otherwise become discouraged. They're able to complete core requirements when given a second chance through an online learning environment. Some schools using online courses have seen meteoric rises in graduation rates, from barely more than half to numbers approaching 90% and 100%.

An Artificial Rise?

While online courses appear to be a boon for failing schools, detractors question their true efficacy. These critics consider credit recovery to be a hollow system that pushes students through without teaching them the material. They derisively call them click-click credits, suggesting that students need to do little more than click through the course without rigorous learning.

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Those who question the improved graduation rates point to many examples of weaknesses in online classes. Cheating can be easier in online courses, with students taking advantage of the Internet to copy and paste answers to questions. They may exploit the limited attention from online instructors who are often supervising a vast group of students.

Students who study online may also take a more superficial approach to academics than their classroom-based counterparts. For example, though reports vary, many students working online aren't required to read a novel. Instead, they might read sparse excerpts from a work and never pick up a physical book. Though graduation rates may rise, this leads to problems after high school. Remedial education in college has been rising in recent years, suggesting a lack of proper preparation.

The Goals of Graduation Rates

The success of online courses in improving graduation rates may be a mixed blessing. The numbers of students reaching graduation may be improving, but the intellectual merit of these courses may be questionable. Ultimately, educators must decide upon their true goals regarding graduation. Is compromising academic rigor an acceptable cost for the benefit of lowering dropout rates and helping more students complete their studies?

An online initiative called Dropout Nation is taking on the challenge of raising graduation raises.

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