Online Community College Students Engage Less With Peers: Report

Fully online community college students found their coursework more challenging and engaged less with both their instructors and peers compared with students who took at least some in-person classes.
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Published on June 9, 2023
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  • Online students worked with their peers less than students who weren't fully online, according to a new report from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement.
  • Online-only students were also less likely to interact with their instructors both in and outside of class, according to the survey.
  • Fully online students also reported greater challenges with their coursework.
  • Students are more likely to succeed with more interaction with their peers and instructors, according to the report.

Online community college students feel more challenged by their coursework and engage less with their peers than in-person students, according to a new report from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE).

Half of online-only students said they "never" worked with other students on projects during their classes during the academic year compared with 17% of students who weren't online only, according to the report. Just 19% of online-only students said they worked with other students often or very often compared with 47% of their peers who weren't online only.

Online-only students were also much less likely to work with other students outside of class: 65% said they never worked with classmates outside of class to prepare assignments compared with 40% of students who weren't online only.

Online-only students also reported less engagement than their peers when it came to interacting with instructors. Roughly 58% of online-only students said they never discussed ideas from their readings or classes with their instructors outside of class time compared to just 43% of students who weren't online only.

"In general, the more interaction students have with their instructors, the more likely they are to learn effectively and persist toward achievement of their educational goals," the report reads.

Students who exclusively attended class online were also less likely to use tutoring services and skill labs compared to their in-person peers.

That lessened engagement also led to heightened challenges with coursework for online students, despite the fact that online-only students reported skipping class less than students who weren't online only. Half of online-only students said they found their examinations during the academic year "somewhat or extremely challenging" compared to 38% of their peers who weren't online only.

The wide-ranging report was given in the spring of 2022 to 82,824 students from 181 colleges across 41 states, according to a CCSSE press release.

"These findings show us that engagement clearly matters for online-only students," CCSSE Executive Director Linda García said in the release. "This begs the question, If engagement opportunities were equal across virtual and in-person experiences, would more students who take all of their classes online have better chances of succeeding?"

Online-only students are much more likely to be of nontraditional college age than students who aren't online-only, according to the survey. They are more likely to work more than 30 hours per week, have children living with them, and tend to attend school part time. Online-only students are also largely female: 78% of online-only students were female compared to 59% of students who weren't online-only.

Community college students are more optimistic about technology and online learning than before the pandemic, according to a report from Bay View Analytics released earlier this year: 58% of administrators, 52% of faculty, and 44% of students said in that report that they were more optimistic, with only small portions of each group indicating that they were more pessimistic.

"It is rare to find topics where students, faculty, and administrators are in total agreement," Julia Seaman, the research director at Bay View Analytics, said in a release at the time. "However, that is exactly what we see when examining the rapid and complete digital learning transformation occurring at Community Colleges."