Saturday, October 27, 2018

Student retention in distance learning - tip of the ICEBERG

A generalisation that simply won't go away is that online/distance courses have poor retention rates. This has often been used as evidence against online education and in some countries (such as here in Sweden) has lead to a reduction of online courses in favour of campus-based programmes. Basically drop-outs mean reduced income for the university so it's not surprising that they prefer the security of full-time campus studies. The often discussed low retention levels of MOOCs has fuelled this movement even more. However, this issue is much more complex than simply concluding that online education"doesn't work as well" as traditional campus education.

Students drop out of courses for a wide variety of reasons, often in combination. They may have no academic background and lack support and encouragement from friends and relatives. Many combine distance studies with full time work and family life resulting in tensions and stress that are often most easily resolved by dropping out. They may find the academic environment and terminology daunting and this increases their own feeling of inadequacy and feeling out of their depth. Their previous experience of education may be very negative resulting in a feeling or inferiority and lack of confidence. Many have little or no experience of online learning and lack the necessary study skills and digital literacy to adapt to the course requirements. Added to this are factors that concern the course itself. Many online courses are still basically self-study and this leads to feelings of isolation and the lack of support and teacher presence makes it all too easy to feel that nobody will notice if I simply drop out.

A colleague and I carried out a study a few years ago of the retention rates of campus and distance courses and degree programmes at our university and came to the conclusion that delivery form was not the main reason for students dropping out. We found distance courses and degree programmes with higher retention rates than their campus equivalents and also found distance courses with low rates. However what all courses and programmes with high retention rates had in common were course design factors: clear structure and course information, high levels of interaction and variety in the learning environment and good scaffolding.

The importance of course design for raising retention levels is highlighted in an excellent new article by Jitse van Ameijde, Martin Weller and Simon Cross from the Open University entitled Learning Design for Student Retention. They review existing literature in the field and report on a survey of students and staff from the Open University, resulting in the identification of seven key course design principles neatly gathered under the acronym ICEBERG. The definitions of these principles are best read in the article itself but here's a short summary.
  • Integrated. A clear structure where all the activities and material clearly link to the learning outcomes and the student sees a purpose for every element. Constructive alignment in other words.
  • Collaborative. Developing a supportive learning community and fostering meaningful interaction between students and teachers.
  • Engaging. Course material that is relevant and meaningful to the students. A variety of activities and use of different media. Clear teacher presence showing enthusiasm and interest in students' progress.
  • Balanced. Keeping a steady pace and manageable workload.
  • Economical. Avoiding overloading students with too much information and useful material that isn't directly related to the learning outcomes of each course module.
  • Reflective. Helping students to reflect on their learning process and offering frequent formative assessment activities.
  • Gradual. A gradual process moving from simple to increasingly complex tasks as the course progresses including support at each stage.
These principles provide a useful framework for course design and could be developed further into a checklist for self-evaluation. The ICEBERG framework applies equally to all types of course, whether campus, online or blended. However, the article ends by pointing out that retention is not the only factor governing course design.

Similarly, retention is only one aspect that should be considered by course designers, and should not be at the expense of addressing complex topics, or implementing challenging pedagogy. However, it is the authors’ contention that retention is rarely given sufficient attention as a design principle in its own right, and it is a matter of increasing significance to students,educators, institutions and society. The proposed model then is a means of considering any course from the perspective of retention.

Van Ameijde, J., Weller, M., Cross, S. (2018) Learning Design for Student Retention. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice Vol 6 No 2. DOI

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