We’ve been in a large-scale and unanticipated foray into online education at Fresno State for more than two years. Last fall, we released preliminary findings after our move to virtual mode, and as we approach the end of this academic year, the lessons are becoming clearer. What have we learned and how will we move forward?
The temporary move of online classes has taught us some hard lessons: student learning and well-being have suffered. This is clear, even admitting that it is impossible to separate the sudden shift to online teaching from the other impacts of the pandemic that have disrupted our lives. In responses to rapid-response surveys in 2020 and 2021, students reported difficulty with motivation and concentration, lack of access to appropriate learning environments, and feelings of isolation from their peers. These issues, which we know play a key role in student success, improved significantly in the fall of 2021, when more than half of our classes returned to in-person instruction.
Despite moving student support services online for greater accessibility during the pandemic, school counseling appointments are down 20% and visits to school support services, such as tutoring and supplemental teaching , fell by 60%. Given the value and effectiveness of these programs, we believe this has resulted in lower GPAs and higher than usual failure rates, which many students are still trying to recover from.
These factors have also contributed to students leaving Fresno State at an alarming rate. For example, retention rates for freshmen in the first semester rose from 96% previously to 90% in 2020, then partially rebounded to 93% this year. At-risk student populations—underrepresented minorities, low-income, and/or first-generation students—left at even higher rates.
A comparison of completion rates in fully online, fully in-person, and hybrid courses in fall 2021 provided insight into the relationship between course modality and student success. Overall, pass rates were 1.5% lower in online courses and nearly 3% lower in hybrid courses, but closer examination reveals a more complex picture. Students who were new to Fresno State, especially freshmen, had more difficulty with online instruction. They had more than 5% lower pass rates in online or hybrid courses. Other groups, including minority, male and first-generation students, also performed worse in online courses than their peers. This difference equates to approximately 830 students failing a course in fall 2021 who would otherwise have passed. These failures represent delays to graduation for students with aspirations and potential.
Our future certainly holds a place for online learning, based on best practices and carefully designed programs. Despite our faculty’s superhuman efforts to provide quality learning experiences under serious constraints, the outcomes of these nascent courses may not reflect faculty’s potential to teach when curriculum development and instructional training may be implemented with greater efficiency.
That said, data consistently shows that some at-risk student populations are not as well served by online classes as they are by in-person classes, and we need to provide an educational environment that is equitable and conducive to their learning needs. Our challenge is: how do we find a balance of teaching methods that optimizes student success? Online course options are convenient, but it’s apparent that most students learn more effectively with in-person instruction that allows them to engage with each other, have direct access to faculty, and develop a sense of belonging. Direct engagement facilitates their development as emerging professionals in their disciplines and immerses them in campus life.
Going forward, we will continue to learn how to deliver well-designed online courses to students for whom this is an appropriate learning modality – and this can be accomplished through faculty development and careful selection of courses that show improved learning outcomes over those that show diminished outcomes.
By engaging with each other, our students grow socially, psychologically, and professionally. Our faculty also continue to grow, refining their research, teaching styles, and scholarly and creative expression. Our best way to thrive on this journey is to be present and generate our collective energy, fueled by our curiosity, creativity and shared aspirations for our community.
For now, online education will enhance, rather than replace, the traditional classroom experience that has sustained generations of Fresno State students.
Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval is president of California State University, Fresno