Sunday, December 9, 2012

Completion rates in online education

I'm concerned that we continue to discuss the issue of low completion rates in online courses and see the online delivery form as the problem. Lower completion rates are seen as evidence that online education is inherently inferior to the traditional classroom model and that we must simply accept it as "the next best thing". By using terminology such as distance learning, e-learning and net learning we accept that this type of education is a sub category of the wider concept of "learning" which normally takes place in a classroom with teacher and students in the same physical room. Online learning is assumed to be mostly self-study and students lack the dynamic discussion and interaction of a live classroom. I think the vast majority of teachers and especially academic decision makers still think this is true and see educational technology as something only relevant to so-called distance learning. However the factors behind high completion rates are the same regardless of whether the course is on campus or completely online; namely social interaction, a sense of belonging and a supportive learning environment.

A new article by Jacqueline Aundree Baxter of the UK's Open University in IRRODL (International review of research in open and distance learning),Who am I and what keeps me going? Profiling the distance learning student in higher education, links the issue of completion rates to factors such as group dynamics, teamwork and the teacher's role as mentor and facilitator.

"The research revealed insights into factors linked to the expectations, identities, and support of students which proved influential in terms of their resilience and motivation to remain on course."

It's interesting to read how most students in this study expected their course to be mostly self-study and were positively surprised when online collaboration was expected of them. Here the popular image of online education affects student expectations. Every student will bring with her/him their own preconceptions, fears, insecurities and previous academic experience and the success of each student depends on establishing a sense of belonging, a supportive environment and a can-do attitude. Students have widely varying levels of experience in online collaboration and some may feel inadequate at first. The teacher's role of setting the tone and providing reassurance to the hesitant is crucial in the early stages.

"Expectations and beliefs about work and study roles have been found to be important in the retention of students and professionals. Initial expectations which are not well managed can lead to a sense of let-down and erosion of confidence and feelings of agency, which if not addressed lead rapidly to attrition."

Some of the key factors described in the article for boosting completion rates, regardless of delivery form, are:
  • Creating realistic expectations and a clear structure from the outset. The teacher's role in this is crucial.
  • Reducing factors that make students doubt and increasing factors that make students want to stay .
  • Building a sense of community is essential and, once established, students will support and encourage each other to continue even when the going gets tough.
  • Timely teacher interventions when students feel inadequate to the task in hand are worth their weight in gold.
It's not the form of the course that is crucial. It's not about campus versus distance or dividing education into convenient compartments. It's about creating a sense of belonging where students learn how to learn in a supportive environment and where no one ever needs to feel they're on their own. This environment can be created and facilitated with the help of educational technology but it can also be created in a more traditional classroom environment. The basic ingredients are the same and it's that we should be discussing more. Let's talk about learning and take the e- as default.


  1. Well said Alastair. I couldn't agree more.

  2. It is very interesting. I am just working on a Swedish study on distans educatation and its rationales mainly from students perspectives and are coming to some conclusiions close to what is said
    The report will be public i early 2013
    Ebba Ossiannilsson
    Lund University

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