So why do these distance students "drop out"? Are they simply not good enough to complete the course or overestimate their capacity for combining work, family and study? Or are our courses simply not engaging enough and students drop out due to unclear structure, lack of support or boredom? All these factors are involved but the main reason for the problem is more the fact that distance students are very different from traditional campus students. Universities are built around the campus concept where the norm is students between 19 and 25 studying full time and reliant on study loans or stipendia. Throughput on campus courses is naturally pretty high since failure means no more income.
Distance students on the other hand are generally over 25 and study part-time without study loans. They work, have families and homes to look after and see distance learning as part of their professional development. Many do overestimate their ability to find time for study in their already hectic lives and drop out when it gets too much. Not completing a course will not have any serious effect on their lives apart from losing the course fee. In Sweden all higher education is free so you lose nothing by dropping out. In some cases the university doesn't even notice that you've gone. Many distance students study out of pure interest and often fail to even take the course exam since they only want the knowledge not the certificate.
Distance students have a clearly different profile so why do nearly all universities still aim websites and brochures clearly at the campus students when distance students make up a significant proportion of their student base? Pictures of smiling young students studying on campus lawns or in libraries abound but you very seldom see middle aged people at home or in career situations.
The problem at my university and many others is that distance students simply don't generate as much income as campus students. Distance students generally take short part-time courses and generally 4-8 distance students generate the same income for the university as one full-time campus undergraduate. Attracting students to full-time study is therefore the prime focus and distance students then provide a useful supplement.
In Sweden universities are granted a certain sum of money per registered student and then a further sum for each student who completes the course. Drop-out rates are therefore carefully monitired. I have spoken to teachers responsible for courses with a very low official throughput and they say that students often take their time on the course assignments. They seldom complete the course on time and some may not hand in their final assignments until almost a year after the end of the course. The final throughput of a course may well be over 80% but that never shows up in the statistics.
What we need is for more universities to recognize this important and fast-growing student segment by building up an organisation around "continuing education" and focusing on distance students' needs rather than trying to handle them in the same way as full-time campus students. Quality criteria for online courses must be developed and the success of such courses should be assessed seperately from campus. At the moment we're simply comparing apples with pears and this only leads to simplistic conclusions.