The Performance Gap in Online Education

Online education is the wave of the future. The number of students taking at least one distance education course rose to a record high of 5.4 million during the fall of 2013 and institutions of higher education are expanding their online presence to meet this increasing demand. Online education promises to revolutionize how and when we learn, providing access to college to many for the first time.

However, there are some worrying findings regarding online education that should give educators pause. Researchers have identified a performance gap between students in online courses and students in traditional courses. Xu and Jaggars (2011) found that students who took their first English or math course online were less likely than their traditional peers to make a C or better in course. The performance gap was most pronounced for younger students, male students, Black students, and students with low GPAs.

Why does this performance gap exist? Harrington (2010) offers some insight into the problem by outlining five factors that affect students’ ability to successfully complete online courses:

  • restricted access to technology and support services
  • lack of technology skills
  • lack of community in online courses
  • poor reading skills
  • poor student skills (i.e., lack of self-directedness in learning)

Any one of these factors could spell trouble for the online student, but taken together they constitute a very real barrier to successful course completion that is not easy to overcome.

So what can be done to close the gap? It’s difficult to see how some of these issues would be addressed by instructors of online courses. The solution to one problem seems to exacerbates the others. For example, lack of community is cited by Jaggars (2014) as a major reason why students avoid taking online courses. Knowing this, instructors could do more to build community into their online courses. However, the means of doing so are to introduce either more technology (e.g., video conferencing with the instructor and other students) or more reading (e.g., course discussion forums). Students with poor reading skills and restricted access to technology are not going to benefit from such enhancements and may even be hurt by them.

So what is an online instructor to do? There are no easy answers here, unfortunately. One is tempted to write off online education altogether. However, ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. In order to best serve online students, educators must find innovative new ways to build community, teach essential skills, and provide access to technology. The failure to do so will be extreme: students will drop out and educational achievement will be stymied.

It will take bold leadership and creative thinking to resolve the performance gap between online courses and their traditional counterparts. In order to make any progress, educators will need to start a conversation about the benefits and deficiencies of online education as they seek to address its fundamental problems. Please join me in this conversation now by leaving your comments below!


Harrington, A. M. (2010). Hybrid developmental writing courses: Limitations and alternatives. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 26(2), 4–20. Retrieved from

Jaggars, S. S. (2014). Choosing between online and face-to-face courses: Community college student voices. American Journal of Distance Education, 28(1), 27-38. doi: 10.1080/08923647.2014.867697

Stine, L. J. (2010). Teaching basic writing in a Web-enhanced environment. Journal of Basic Writing, 29(1), 33–55. Retrieved from

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2011). The effectiveness of distance education across Virginia’s community colleges: Evidence from introductory college-level math and English courses. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(3), 360–377. doi: 10.3102/0162373711413814

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *