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The effectiveness of online learning: Why students aren’t logging in to online courses

Amanda ClarkFebruary 10, 2021

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According to a United States of Education report, over 7 million students missed 15 or more school days between 2015–2016. Now in 2020, there are a multitude of schools moving to online and students face even more challenges. 

In today’s world, in-person learning isn’t always a viable option, so online education is most likely here to stay. Now, educators are not only seeking research on the effectiveness of online learning, they’re also examining why students aren’t logging in to online courses in the first place.

The International Network of School Attendance (INSA) emphasizes two major reasons why students are not attending online learning:

  1. Students lack resources. Those significantly affected, according to the INSA report, are students with a “low socioeconomic status; minority groups; homeless; refugees; indigenous; those experiencing domestic violence, abuse, and neglect.”
  2. Students lack support in online environments compared to traditional school settings. Examples of things that are lacking from online education include a physical teacher, social interactions, and more.

The report mentions under-resourced families and notes the widening socioeconomic gap that online learning has created for students.

The reasons for this gap should not go unnoticed, so we examined why underprivileged students aren’t logging in to online courses. We also explored how online learning affects middle- and upper-class student attendance and the discrepancies between the two experiences. 

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The impact of online learning on students

The purpose of this case study is to examine the various reasons why students from different socioeconomic backgrounds aren’t logging in to online classes. And through our research, we found recurring patterns in each demographic.

We organized our findings by summarizing relevant surveys and research on the effectiveness of online learning and attendance for low- and high-income students. From there, we compared the two and analyzed the outcomes. We also discovered areas that require future research (listed at the end).

Our research came primarily from surveys conducted by Common Sense Media, the Pew Research Center, the Charles Koch Foundation, College Pulse, The Los Angeles Times, Youth Liberty Squad, and the Economy Policy Institute.  

The contrasting reasons and statistics related to attendance based on students’ specific socioeconomic backgrounds are essential components of research on online learning effectiveness.

There is considerable evidence that online learning impacts low-income students, but how does it affect the middle and upper class?

Between March 24 and April 1, 2020, Common Sense Media surveyed online learners. The organization polled 849 students and found that 47% of public school students said they hadn’t attended any virtual classes, as opposed to 18% of private school students.

The takeaway: When it comes to online learning, affluent students are at an advantage, and as studies have increasingly shown, students who lack resources face legitimate virtual learning obstacles. But what about those students who have the resources?

Not only does the upper class have a leg up in terms of student resources, they also tend to have more parental support with complex courses. An Economy Policy Institute report titled Not Everyone Can Work from Home found that “[l]ess than 10 percent of lower-class workers can work from home, as opposed to 61.5 percent of upper-class workers.”

After researching why affluent students aren’t logging in, we found two recurring reasons:

  1. College students and students enrolled in private institutions weren’t logging in because they didn’t feel this was the education they paid for, leading to decreased motivation. 
  2. Some parents refuse to homeschool or require their children to participate in online learning.

Among college students, the mindset that they should be entitled to a refund for having to switch to online learning is evidenced by a class-action lawsuit filed by Drexel University and a study done by the Charles Koch Foundation.

Students at Drexel University weren’t logging into online classes because they felt the quality wasn’t comparable to that of in-person learning, and not due to a lack of internet. So, they fought for a partial refund.

Drexel students are not alone. According to NBC Philadelphia, students at 26 U.S. universities are filing lawsuits against their schools for partial refunds. Other schools on the list include Cornell, Michigan State, and Purdue.

The idea that online education is not worth as much as a traditional one also prevails in a recent survey of over 5,000 undergraduate students from over 215 colleges, conducted jointly by the Charles Koch Foundation and College Pulse. The report found that 90 percent of college students believe they should pay less for virtual learning. According to the report, students feel they “should pay much less (63%) or a little less (30%) in tuition if only online learning options are available.”

The survey also noted that students feel online learning is less effective than a traditional education. One Wesleyan University student described his professor’s lack of online teaching knowledge: “Three out of four professors had never taught in an online setting. The biggest obstacle is the technology. One professor had us email our assignments because they didn’t know how to create assignments on Canvas.”

How does this affect attendance? 

In short, it’s an issue of motivation.

Numerous studies highlight the correlation between motivation and learning. As Vanderbilt University observes, motivation can promote student learning and offer teachers strategies to engage their classroom.

And, according to Massey University’s Maggie Catherine Hartnee, who wrote the study “The Importance of Motivation on Online Learning”, collectively, other research studies have demonstrated that feedback, the instructor’s role in online discussions, choice, competence, challenge, interest, relevance, and collaboration all influenced student intrinsic motivation to learn in the various online learning context.”

The takeaway: Combined, a lack of motivation and unqualified online instructors can create the mindset among students that virtual learning is not of the same caliber as in-person learning. This is one reason more affluent students are not logging into their online courses. It should also be noted that a lack of motivation in online education could affect all students, regardless of their economic status.

Students of low economic status face more pending hardships when it comes to online education.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 15% of homes with school-aged students do not have internet access. The survey also found that roughly 1 in 4 students with a family income of less than $30,000 lack a computer. A lack of internet and computers pose considerable obstacles for students, resulting in lower attendance rates. 

Another survey by the Los Angeles Times found similar results and pointed to why students weren’t logging in at the beginning of the pandemic. Many low-income schools lacked the resources to get their virtual programs up and running compared to affluent schools with more resources. The survey found that roughly 30% of low-income students lacked devices three weeks after school closings. Six weeks later, 12% still did.

These findings suggest that low-income-serving districts were behind in online education, as compared to more affluent neighborhoods. According to the study, around half of students had access to computers when schools closed, whereas 87% of students from affluent-serving districts had computer access. Approximately 95% of those same students had access to computers just three weeks later!

Low-income students also face another obstacle: lack of a dedicated workspace. A Common Sense Media survey found that 28% of students lacked a dedicated workspace “where they can do schoolwork at home.” In addition to the lack of internet, devices, and workspaces, many low-income students also lack adult guidance with their courses at home.

Adam Laats, University of Bigham professor of education, notes that “[w]ithout home internet or parents to guide them at home, students from lower-income homes are enduring a significant lack of educational opportunity during this crisis that will likely endure for years to come.” He also notes that virtual learning for more affluent students tends to be an “inconvenience,” while online learning leads to more educational, financial, and health crises for lower-income students. 

Concerns for all demographics

In our findings, we did discover commonalities for why students in general weren’t attending online classes. We mentioned motivation earlier; the other factor is stress.

According to Common Sense Media, 63% worry about the pandemic’s impact “on their family’s ability to make a living or earn money.” 

And perhaps more striking are the numbers found in the Youth Liberty Squad report, which surveyed 68 districts and found that “over half of California’s students could need mental health support.” The report found that 65% of students rated their mental health a 7 or above on a 1–10 scale before the pandemic, while less than 40% of students rated “their current COVID-19 mental wellness” at the same level or higher.

How online learning impacts all students

Our findings suggest that, although most students have worries and anxieties related to the pandemic that could affect their attendance, the barriers for low-income students logging into online classes are many. The online learning barriers for affluent students, although present, are fewer.

Students who attend colleges and private institutions express:

  • dissatisfaction with online versus traditional learning
  • a lack of social interaction
  • decreased motivation

In comparison, studies done with low-income students indicate more considerable obstacles, such as:

  • lack of internet
  • lack of computers
  • lack of adult support, workspaces, and more

While researching why affluent students were not logging in, we found fewer surveys and studies compared to why low-income students were not logging in. We’d recommend researching this topic more in the future. For further research, we’d also recommend exploring the methods for accurately recording online learning since we found this to be an obstacle for some schools.

Online learning can offer a solution for making a socially distanced education possible

We need to collaborate to make online education accessible and a quality learning experience for all. Online learning can do this and offers a solution to make a socially distanced education possible. However, if a large proportion of students can’t access it, we’re only exacerbating the socioeconomic divide.

In addition to asking ourselves why students aren’t logging in, let’s consider the following questions: 

  • How do we provide more funding for student devices?
  • How do we make the internet accessible to all students?
  • Where can we find high-quality, affordable online programs?
  • How do we bridge the gap?

That’s a case study for the future that will take further examination, collaboration, and innovation.

Photo credit: Unsplash

Intrinsic motivation: 
The key to tiered intervention

When students care about their behavior, a good tiered intervention program becomes great.

Get playbook
Intrinsic Motivation Playbook Mock Up

Distance Learning - Student Engagement