Enrollment in online courses has outpaced overall university enrollment for the past several years. The growth of online courses does not appear to be slowing. The purpose of this study was to compare course completion and student academic performance between online and traditional courses. Archival data from the host university student records system was collected using the Structured Query Language. Descriptive statistics were used to analyze student characteristics. Chi-square analysis was used to determine if statistically significant differences existed between students enrolled in online and traditional courses when comparing course completion and academic performance. Analysis found statistically significant differences existed in both course completion and academic performance for students enrolled in online versus traditional courses. Additional analysis indicated statistically significant differences existed in course completion by course discipline.The authors conclude
The growth rate of student enrollments in online courses is outpacing the growth rate of the total higher education student population (Allen & Seaman, 2008). Research on the course completion rates in online education is mixed. Some research has found course completion in online courses was as good as or better than in traditional courses (Roach, 2002). Other researchers have found that traditional courses have higher course completion rates when compared to online equivalents (Brady, 2001; Carr, 2000; Simpson, 2003).
Course completion and student performance has financial impacts on students as well as the university. The THECB (2008) proposed a shift in formula funding from attempted to completed semester credit hours. If retention and completion in online courses is lower than the traditional classroom setting, the host university could potentially lose a portion of state funding. Understanding where retention in online courses is a problem will allow the host university to take corrective action in order to increase retention and student success in online courses. Additionally, the Texas Administrative Code dictates that a university “shall not submit for formula funding any hours for a course that is the same or substantially similar to a course that the student previously attempted for two or more times at the same institution” ([TAC], Title 19, Part 1, Rule 13.105, 2005). To compensate for the loss of state funding, the university could charge tuition up to the out-of-state tuition rates for the course. Objective one sought to determine if statistically significant differences existed in student performance between online and traditional courses. A chi-square analysis on the dataset indicated that a statistically significant difference did exist in the student performance between online and traditional courses. This finding supports previous research on student performance in online courses (Faux & Black-Hughes, 2000; Paden, 2006; Shoenfeld-Tacher, McConnel, & Graham, 2001). Additional observation of the grade frequencies found a higher percentage of As, Ds, and Fs in online courses, while traditional courses had a higher percentage of Bs and Cs. Shoenfeld-Tacher et al. found student academic performance as measured by a post-test in an online science course was significantly different and superior to student performance in the traditional course section. Paden found that student academic performance in an introductory math course was significantly different between online and traditional delivery. Contrary to what Shoenfeld-Tacher et al. found, Paden noted academic performance of students enrolled in the traditional section of the introductory math course was superior to students enrolled in the online section.
With regard to objective two, statistically significant differences did exist in course completion rates between online and traditional course delivery. This finding supports research conducted by McLaren (2004), Paden (2006), and Roach (2002) who found differences in course completion rates between online and traditional courses. Additional analysis indicated that students enrolled in online courses had a lower course completion rate (93.3%) than students enrolled in traditional courses (95.6%). This supports research by Paden who found that traditional course delivery had a higher retention rate compared to online delivery for students enrolled in an introductory math course. Nelson (2006) found statistically significant differences in student retention rates between online and traditional course delivery. With regard to objective three, statistically significant differences existed in course completion rates by course discipline. Additional observations supported previous research that suggested some disciplines may not be well-suited to online delivery (Carnevale, 2003; Nelson, 2006; Noble, 2004; Paden, 2006; Smith, Heindel, & Torres-Ayala, 2008). Course completion varied by discipline with reading having the highest rate at 98.2% and finance with the lowest at 82.2%. Nelson examined course completion rates for nine disciplines and found that no statistically significant differences existed for seven of the disciplines. However, statistically significant differences did exist in criminal justice and psychology and Nelson suggested that these course disciplines might not be conducive to online delivery. Smith et al. (2008) compared online and traditional course completion rates in mathematics courses and found lower retention rates in online mathematics courses. The researchers suggested that mathematics might not be appropriate for online delivery.
The research was conducted using archival data from the host institution’s student record system. No data was available on student perceptions of the courses or student aptitude with the technology used for course delivery. Additional student characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity, classification, major, and experience with online course delivery were not evaluated as part of this research. What type of student is likely to succeed in online courses? Does experience with the technology lead to greater course completion and improved student performance in online courses? More research into student characteristics could help identify possible variables to predict student success in online courses.