Are students more likely to succeed if they can attend class in person or online?

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A college in Philadelphia is trying a new approach to learning that it hopes will benefit students who otherwise might pass on earning a degree.


Peirce College is rolling out a plan that will let students choose whether to attend courses in-person or online on a weekly basis. They could do in-person one week, and online the next.

Stephanie Donovan, an assistant professor at the college who has overseen a pilot program, told Fusion the program decreased absenteeism from 10.2 percent to just 1.4 percent.

"That's a strong indication of how this model will encourage persistence," Donovan said, adding that students have told her the online option has been crucial on days when something comes up and they can't make it to campus.

While online learning is nothing new, a mixed model that gives students flexibility on a weekly basis is relatively rare. MOOCs (massive open online courses) have been criticized for failing to engage and educate students, leaving those who struggle floundering and at risk of dropping out because they don't offer in-person interaction.

Several years ago, an online program at San Jose State University aimed at helping high-risk students complete remedial coursework and get up to speed largely failed. Many suggested high-risk students were the wrong candidates for online learning and stood to benefit the most from in-person engagement with a professor. Peirce's model would encourage in-person interaction but permit the flexibility of online learning as well, the university argues.

Peirce serves mostly adult students who are juggling jobs, children and other responsibilities that many traditional college students don't have to navigate. It's a demographic that is disproportionately likely to enroll in for-profit universities, often because they offer online courses.


But for-profit schools, including Corinthian Colleges, have been hit with accusations of taking advantage of students by encouraging them to take out student loans, collecting the money and then failing to provide an education.

If Peirce's flexible model succeeds and other traditional universities launch similar programs, a more diverse array of students may be able to access quality higher learning.


It remains to be seen, Donovan said, whether other schools will adopt a similar model, but said the new mixed-learning option is her school's response to the changing needs of students.

'The model is new and so there is a culture shift there," she said, "but Peirce is fortunate to have a faculty base who is open to doing things differently and to the benefit of our students."


[UPDATE, 12:50 p.m. ET]: This post has been updated to reflect the addition of an interview with Stephanie Donovan, who oversees the pilot program at Peirce.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.