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Why Are So Many Students Still Failing Online?

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Online learning has become the third rail in American higher-education politics: Step on it and you're toast.

That's especially true at community colleges, where many leaders have embraced online courses with an almost religious fervor. And we all know why. It's not because anyone is seriously arguing that online classes are consistently better than the face-to-face versions. And it's not even necessarily because students are clamoring for them (although they're clearly popular in certain segments of the population, such as stay-at-home parents, people with full-time jobs, and deployed members of the armed forces). It's because colleges can produce online courses much more cheaply while charging roughly the same tuition.

In other words, at many community colleges, online classes constitute the proverbial cash cow. And if you say anything about them—other than that we should offer more and more, forever and ever, virtual worlds without end, amen—then you will be branded as a heretic, ridiculed as a neo-Luddite, and shunned.

At least it sometimes seems that way. But isn't it time that we had an honest national conversation about online learning? With countless studies showing success rates in online courses of only 50 per cent—as opposed to 70-to-75 percent for comparable face-to-face classes— isn't it time we asked ourselves some serious questions? Such as: Should every course be taught online? And should we allow every student—or any student who wishes to—to take online courses?

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