5 Questions to Ask About Online Community College Courses

Students heading to community college to pursue an associate degree, professional certification or transfer to a four-year school, will probably find they can do a significant portion of their course work online.

The vast majority of two-year schools offer at least some online learning options. And as far back as 2008, a third or more of community college students in states like Virginia and Washington took at least one online course during their studies, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

But online learning at public two-year schools presents some unique challenges students may not expect. So before students choose a partial or fully online route for their community college experience, they might want to answer the following five questions about any potential program.

Consider whether to [take an online course at community college.]

1. How often will online courses have me coming to campus? While this might seem counterintuitive, experts say what community colleges often advertise as online courses often still require semiregular trips to campus.

Some classes merely require face-to-face exams, which can sometimes be administered by test proctors closer to home. Others may use a hybrid model that blends elements of online learning with periodic face-to-face instruction or lab sessions.

And even if all instruction is received online, academic support may not be.

“Not all community colleges have all support services available online for a learner,” says Tom Erney, the dean of distance education at Columbus State Community College. “So the student wants to make sure that they fully understand what are those things that are available to them, or if are there times that they’re going to have to come to campus.”

2. How comfortable am I with the subject material? Research from the Community College Research Center has shown that, in general, online community college students may feel disconnected from their professor, and that academic performance averages lower online than in face-to-face community college classes.

That doesn’t mean all professors struggle to support students in the online format. But students might want to consider whether they have enough foundational knowledge of the subject to survive a course largely as a self-learner.

“It’s worth it to sort of think through,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director at the research center, who especially warns against taking a more challenging class online because the face-to-face section is not offered until a later academic term.

Discover how [employers view associate degrees.]

3. Is there a well-run online learning center? Experts say most community colleges with robust online learning programs will have an office devoted solely to supporting online instruction.

The existence of this office suggests students will have access to online advising. And it also usually means faculty — who are very often adjuncts with other jobs — have qualified support staff helping to design engaging courses.

But not all online learning centers may be of comparable quality, says Marilyn Dickey, the director of the center for distance learning at Tallahassee Community College.

“I think we all realize how important it is, it’s just that some schools are further ahead than others,” she says

4. Are competency-based courses offered? Because community colleges are generally open enrollment institutions, academic abilities of students within a class can vary widely.

That is leading some community colleges to develop competency-based online courses, which allow students to progress at their own pace when they master concepts, says Kara Monroe, the associate vice president for online academic education at Ivy Tech Community College.

This allows more advanced students to progress, and lagging students to not feel rushed.

“That idea resonates pretty well with a lot of community college faculty,” Monroe says. “And I think you’re going to see a tremendous amount of growth in that area be first at the community college level.”

5. Wha t is the typical class size? Since the majority of online community college courses are not competency-based, that leaves instructors with a classes of students whose instructional needs vary widely.

For that reason, Monroe suggests looking for courses where class sizes are limited to 15 or 20 students.

Explore [studying abroad as a community college student.]

Smith Jaggars says the more typical class of 25 to 30 students found in face-to-face sections should be manageable with a good online instructor, but that getting a professor’s support in a larger online section can be even more difficult than in a large lecture.

“If you feel like you’re the kind of person that’s going to want to have some support from your professor,” she says, “then taking an online course with 200 people in it is probably not going to get you what you need.”

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.

Ian Quillen is a Baltimore-based freelance reporter for U.S. News covering online education.Follow him on Twitter at @iaqdiesel or reach him by email.

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