Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tune in, turn on, drop out?

Whenever the subject of distance learning is discussed at higher levels at my university and undoubtedly many others the troubled issue of drop-out rates comes up. Most universities have some form of distance learning today but it has mostly been treated as a kind of second-rate solution compared to traditional campus courses with classroom teaching. One of the main reasons for it not being taken too seriously by decision makers is the fact that many such courses seem to have a rather high drop-out rate and therefore don't generate as much income for the university as full-time campus students.

Self study at study by Hermés, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Hermés 

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.


  1. I agree almost completely, and I also know the background to your arguments :) It would be very interesting to see if it's the same at many universities... I think it's similar at many HE sites!

  2. Great to get a comment so quickly!
    Most of my contacts at Swedish universities say the same. Just felt I'd like to summarize these arguments in one place. Nothing new but still a major problem.

  3. I have same situation here. We need to change the picture of the typical student a bit

  4. I am not so sure that the drop out rate is that much greater. Sure, it is if you compare the number enrolled from day 1 until the end. BUT, if you look at drop out rates from the beginning of (say) week 2 until the end, then the drop put rate decreases rapidly.

    Distance students apply for more than 1 distance course or they are waiting for a reply from a job which has been applied for, etc. For my part (at least based on my experience), there is no great difference in drop out rates between distance/campus courses

  5. Completely agree Satish. I don't think there is such a "problem" if you really examine it carefully. However the issue just won't go away and, as I wrote, that's what I hear from decision makers. We need to focus more on these students and stop pretending that they are the same as campus students. We have 2 distinct student segments today and need to address both in the right way.

  6. Satish å Alastair, I agree completely. The most important work, maybe not most..., should be done at the start of the course to find out if it is possible to make more students stay the whole course! Analyze the known and maybe the unknown factors that make students leave the course early and try to perform activities that makes them stay :)

  7. I think that the distance courses should be more flexible, there should be more discussions forum so you feel you have classmates to discuss things with. It is also important to have a system in place that makes it easier to do exams at other times and dates. Supervisors have to be allotted with enough time to supervise the students and they have to be familiar with ICT so they can guide students in a proper way.

    I have studied around 15 different distancecourses in 5 different universities and I have completed them all. It has worked fine for me The best was the one when the course officier was online every week, two hours on a set day. you could ask about anything and discuss topics. I think most of the students in that course completed the course because we managed to build a strong community and supported eachother.

    The plattform used i also important. There are many platforms that are like labyrinths. Links after links fools you away and you dont know how to get back. I want clear and simple overview an easy hierarchy int he topics an a goo chat forum.

    I think I will continue with distance courses as long as they exist as I think it is a great way to develop your knowledge and challenge the brain and your presception on life.:-)