Online Learning Drop Out Factors

I was recently interviewed for a magazinearticle about the main factors that contribute to eLearning dropout rates.

The answer to this question is not clear cut or simple. There are a number of variables including:
i) the type and academic level of the online course,
ii) the quality of the learning design, navigation and interactiveness of the online course,
iii) the technical and online teaching skills of the teacher / eLearning facilitator,
iv) the digital literacy of the student,
v) the experience, maturity, motivation, self-directedness of the student and the cognitive load factors the learner faces,
vi) the quality, reliability and speed of the learner’s online access,
vii) the level of encouragement and timely support available to the student by both the teacher and the institution generally,
viii) the student’s personal context i.e. social and family circumstances and commitments, workload and income / financial resources

All of these thing have a bearing on whether or not someone starting an online courses stays the distance,  formally withdraws or simply drops out without giving a reason.

Addressing each of these points in turn:

i) Research tends to indicate that the more opportunity and reason for collaborative activity, to discuss ideas and be actively involved in problem solving and researching and creating knowledge, the more engaging the course is for learners and the more they get out of it. This type of course tends to find its most common expression as a graduate or post graduate course rather than at undergraduate level.

The undergraduate experience is often associated with large class sizes, online access to readings, course notes/ handouts,  PowerPoint lectures and a heavy reliance on multi-choice type online quizzes. The nature of these courses are such that support and individual attention is severely limited and the course content and style is often a tedious experience, which requires an inordinate amount of self-motivation and stick-ability for a learner to complete the course. There are learners who can cope with this type of course ok, but there are a lot who don’t.

ii) Learning design of online courses is not a well understood by the vast majority of teachers who put their traditional classroom based courses online. Is the course a purely distance-based course or is there an opportunity to have a blend of online and classroom teaching. If it’s purely delivered online, does the course content demonstrate an appropriate visual aesthetic in terms of layout, font type, colors and graphical elements? Is the navigation intuitive and well signposted? Are there sufficient visual cues and layout techniques to enable a learner to not only find their way around, but have a sense of coherence, flow and order in the way the content and activities are presented? Does it provide opportunities for appropriate and relevant learning activities that may include peer to peer interaction, group collaboration and authentic, “real world” assignment types?

If the course is to be more than simply an electronic filing cabinet for course texts, PowerPoint or PDF lectures and arbitrarily assigned discussion forum activity and multi-choice quizzes, then the course must be designed along sound learning and teaching theory models and best practice learning design approaches. The literature on this is extensive, compelling and readily available, but must be engaged with. Unfortunately many teachers, preoccupied with their research and publishing focus, on which their promotional potential depends, and frequently unrewarded for engaging with professional development in this arena, often do not have sufficient knowledge or understanding of learning design to know that they need to know it. The technology tends to be the end all and be all.

iii) Most teachers, particularly at college level, have little in the way of sound teaching and learning theory on which to draw. They may be experts in their field and have a high level of propositional knowledge, but tend to teach pretty much the way they were taught. Teaching online is different and requires different skills. In particular, an understanding of how people learn, especially in an online environment, effective means of getting students to interact,  become engaged   and what barriers to learning the online system itself generates. Also their technical skills needs to be sufficiently advanced so that they can take advantage of the sorts of resources and activities the online world makes available. Ultimately though, it is a teacher’s ability to project themselves effectively in an online environment, to connect with the learners in a meaningful way and have the ability to involve learners both in the topic under study and with each others as collaborators in a learning enterprise. This is a skill that needs time and mentoring to develop and is something of a rarity in my experience.

iv) It is often assumed that the current generation of students, sometimes referred to as “millennials’ and/or “digital natives” are totally at ease with all manner of technological tools and gizmos. While this may be true in some respects, it’s a mistake to think that this translates into a similar level of ease with online courses. Digital literacy requires more than a superficial technical skill, it also requires the ability to integrate the tools into their preferred learning mode and to use them as a means to a learning end rather than the technology being the thing that commands the interest. Being able to cut and paste content from Wikipedia or other websites and dress it up images, sound and moving pictures may suggest technical skill, but is it learning in the sense that most educators would define? It is also axiomatic that not all those born since the advent of digital technology, have the ability, access, interest or skills to be comfortable in the eLearning world, Further, many learners who take on eLearning courses, are from a generation who are still computer novices and have trouble managing their mobile phone.

v) Alongside digital literacy, maturity, self-directedness and motivation born of a real sense of commitment to complete could almost be regarded as essential qualities in a prospective eLearner. For many undergraduates, this is still part of their nascent and developing identity. Experience with eLearning is also a telling factor. The vast majority of eLearning withdrawals and dropouts are first time eLearners. As I have written in a previous article this raises the issues of the often unrealistic expectations first time eLearners have of their ability to undertake the demands of an eLearning course. They are also often dismayed at the level of anxiety that is generated through the cognitive load effect, where a novice eLearner is confronted by multi-level and multi-dimensional learning tasks for which they have had little if any experience. This cognitive overloading experience can results in novice eLearners feeling swamped  by the seemingly overwhelming amount of information and new learning they have to process simultaneously, this can cause a spike in anxiety levels, which in turn leads to discouragement and demotivation and the feeling that it’s just too hard and so they drop out.

vi) While broadband internet speeds are increasing exponentially, cost, geographical remoteness from high speed network infrastructure and old slow equipment is still a reality for many eLearners. Confronted by large course files that are meant to be downloaded across slow networks, that may drop connections, can make the learning process frustrating in the extreme. Network reliability, fast broadband access and computing equipment capable of handling the type of content that are part and parcel of the eLearning world would be the obvious answer, but this not the universal experience for students. Knowing who your learners are and the type of computing and network environment they have access to is a base requirement and courses need to be designed and structured in such a way that those on slow equipment and networks are not unnecessarily disadvantaged.

vii) Probably the most telling factor in the eLearning drop out arena is the quality, timeliness and accessibility of support for the online learner from the teacher and the institution in general. This more than anyone thing, in my view, will determine whether or not a learner stays with an online course. In many cases, eLearning is seen as a cost effective method of delivering courses to large numbers of students. I use the term delivering deliberately, as in such cases  it is highly questionable than it can be called teaching. Students have little opportunity for guidance, or useful contact with teaching staff. Feelings of isolation and not being cared about will often arise, and again motivation is lost, anxiety spikes and the obvious thing to do is drop out.

Much was promised in the early days of eLearning about how it would revolutionize teaching and how it would provide terrific economies of scale. The unfortunate truth is that eLearning is time and effort intense for both learners and teachers, especially when learning the ropes. The cost savings envisaged by adopting online learning are sadly the stuff of myth. To do it properly takes time, and appropriate resources, not to mention skills and a passion for the mode. Done well it does delivers handsomely on that other scale of effectiveness, that of a deeper, more engaged method of learning, but implemented as a method of saving money in delivering education and training, will, in most cases, result in courses for which there will be a high rate of drop outs and withdrawals.

viii) Finally the  student’s personal context i.e. social and family circumstances and commitments, workload and income / financial resources is of primary significance. Many who take on eLearning as their preferred method of study do so for a variety of reasons, such as economics , accessibility, convenience and personal circumstances. Many who do so are working adults, some with families or other relational commitments and responsibilities. The need to keep working and study at the same time is often a primary reason for undertaking study online and at a distance. In such cases the potential for disruption, crises of various kinds and unforeseen changes in circumstances is quite high and can seriously undermine a person’s ability to complete a course. In some cases this can be mitigated by an understanding teacher and an institution that can rearrange things accordingly and provide the required extensions etc. Where this is not the case then it’s usually game over. In any event, even with the best will in the world, sometime life happens and there’s no real answer.

I’d be interested to know if others agree or disagree with my comments or have something different to add to the conversation.

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Life Happens

I made a promise when I started this blog that I would do my best to write something once a week, however life happens and I missed a week ago. My excuse is that I had an Angioplasty procedure in which stents were inserted into 3 arteries to combat angina symptoms and the early development of heart disease, a week ago Friday. A most interesting if somewhat strange and unsettling experience.

While on the table having the procedure, it did occur to me that the training for cardiologists in this, what to me was a very technical, precise and potentially dangerous procedure, must be quite a difficult thing to implement. In some respects it’s not a whole lot different to training pilots to fly large passenger aircraft. You don’t want them rehearsing take off’s and landings and other tricky maneuvers on real aircraft, and so large, and very sophisticated simulators are used to get pilot skills up to scratch.

I wonder if Cardiologists have similar simulation technologies to practice the very tricky method of getting a stent into the right place, inflating the balloon that expands the stent, (at something like 6 times the pressure of a car tyre, I was told afterwards) and then retrieving all the installation hardware and closing off the artery.

All this I thought pretty bloody amazing and big ups for my Geordie cardiologist who did the job and was well pleased with himself for the elegance of his work. Not nearly as pleased as I was with him I might add. This whole procedure, though quite stressful and a bit uncomfortable, was so much less arduous that open heart surgery would have been. It’s also a huge testament to modern technology and the cardiologist’s skills. When you think that the route they take is through the femoral artery in the groin, up though the artery to the heart itself, you get some notion of the extraordinary skill and techniques involved, not to mention the care and support from the other staff involved in the whole process. However they do the training, it works a treat, but I’d be interested in finding out a bit more about it.

This blog entry is also a bit late as well, this time due to the huge earthquake that hit Christchurch and a good deal of Canterbury 4 days ago. No loss of life, which was pretty bloody amazing, but huge damage and many lives impacted in very serious ways. After the awesome shake, (and I use awesome in its intended meaning here), which we felt very intensely some 130 kms from Christchurch – so God only knows how it felt for those poor sods in Christchurch, Kaiapoi and Darfield – the stunned aftermath and the awful reality has set in. Lives have been changed forever for more than two-thirds of the population of those places. 100,00 of an estimated 160,000 homes have been damaged, most seriously and life is going to take a long time to return to anything near to resembling normality.

One very comforting aspect of this has been the really excellent work done by the civil defence people. Again this is something that only simulated training and rehearsal exercises can prepare you for. That and the lessons learned in other less dramatic events become the handbook of what to do when the proverbial effluent hits the air con.

In the context of eLearning there are several things that come to mind from these two experiences. The power and value of simulations and the manner in which lessons learned from previous events are documented and made available in a usable manner for future access and use. It also occurs to me the fragility of electronic and digital technologies when something like an earthquake hits. With power cut off, cell phones and the internet were also affected. Cell phones because the battery back up for the networks were quickly run down because of the massive overloading of the system and the Internet because power is required to both run computers and the modem/routers that provide connection to the WWW. So even is you were able to use your battery enabled laptop, you could not access the internet. Says something about the need for some information to always be held in hard copy. I’d hate to thing what the story would be if civil defence were reliant on the Internet for accessing their critical response documentation.

Well that’s it for now, more later.

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Web-Based Dramatised Scenarios

I come out of a long background of TV and video production as a director and producer. One of the things I learned was the power of scripted dialogue for carrying a story and revealing a character’s attitudes, their self-image and the way they relate to others. Although TV, video and film rely heavily on the visual image, so much so that in some quarters it is regarded that the ideal film is one that has little dialogue – think of “Paris Texas” for instance, however, for dramatic intensity characters need to be in conflict of some sort and dialogue has yet to be displaced as the prime mover of drama.

Some time ago, when developing a series of courses on First Line Management the issue came up of how to handle the softskills component is such topics as Positive Workplace Relationships, Managing Conflict, Problem Solving and Team Building in an online course. The initial, and I might say obvious, response was to use video to create some dramatised scenarios that would illustrate the sorts of case study stories that these subject areas might generate. This idea had obvious merit as learners were more likely to engage with a TV-like storytelling convention than with boring old text. In terms of learning design we wanted learners to engage with the scenarios and to discuss and analyse the issues being revealed and to think about what the issues are, whether the interventions or actions of the characters were appropriate, useful or problematic and to then make observations and recommendations as to how the issues might otherwise be handled.

There were I suggested a couple of problems with this approach. Firstly video is not easy to do and get right. Many years of experience told me that even with an experienced and talented group of video makers and actors, it is a time-consuming and expensive business. It can be done more cheaply with a DYI approach, but the results are often sub-standard and in the field of video, cheaper usually means it takes a lot longer to do. The big problem with video are the many variables that have to be controlled and accounted for. Lighting takes time to do right and is critical for continuity and clean images. Audio is also critical, perhaps more so – it’s interesting to note that people will put up with poor visual quality if the audio is ok, but their tolerance for poor audio is much lower. Then there is the issues of locations, wardrobe and props all of which take time to assemble and with locations, in particular, you often have to work outside working hours to get access to decent office type environments, which is where most of these scenarios would be set.

Then there are the actors. Even with very experienced actors, getting them rehearsed, their movements, expressions and general performance qualities all serving the script and director’s vision all add time and complexity to the production. Logistically, even the simplest shoot involves a lot of coordination, preparation and attention to detail and then you have the whole post-production process to pull together, and post-production is where you usually find out that there’s a critical shot missing, dialogue in one shot doesn’t match in the complementary one and the audio has the buzz of an air conditioner cutting in and out. So you then have to re-shoot the scene or find some other, equally frustrating and time-consuming compromise.

Finally there is the issue of Internet bandwidth. The problem here of course is that till very recently video over the Internet was very bandwidth hungry and for those on a dial-up connection it could take an age to download and play a video file. Even with today’s much improved technology and the advent of You Tube and such like, it is still and issue for some, but it’s certainly improving very rapidly. That said, video is still a tricky option, especially when budgets are tight.

So what did we do. The one thing I knew and understood is that for dramatisations of near to real life interactions between characters the soundtrack carries most of the story in the dialogue. The answer was to use still shots and well produced audio tracks using voice actors. While the still pictures delivered the visual context and the cues as to the location, the characters’ physical appearance and dramatic signification the audio carried the majority of the emotional, plot and character information of the drama. All this was packaged in an HTML wrapper and delivered through the LMS.

These web-based dramatised scenarios are interactive learning objects consisting of audio, vision and text elements which were created for a variety of workplace-based eLearning courses. Accessed from an online Learning Management System, (LMS), the scenarios are displayed on the computer screen, with several photos showing the characters in the scene, with the dialogue written out on the side, as well as the audio coming through the speakers. (Fig.1).

Screen shot of web-based scenario

The scenario is constructed of multiple scenes each of which contains several slides. The learner selects the version they want, text and photos only or the version with the audio, depending on their internet speed. (for examples see:
This provides a range of options for the learner in which they can read, listen and look at visual content all at the same time, which caters effectively to different learning styles and technical constraints.

The audio is the vital ingredient that really brings this tool to life, as a learner is able to hear the drama building in the characters’ voices as the situation develops and interactions rise in intensity. The power in the audio comes from careful scripting and the work of the professional voice actors who are able to deliver the real emotional content of the drama. While there is a cost to using professional voice actors, their professionalism and the speed with which the audio tracks can be laid down, with minimal rehearsal, makes this an economic option. Unlike most video scenarios, these scenarios also provide personal background details, using text, images and audio, those not only fleshes out the characters, but also provide a broader and more detailed context in which the scenario is taking place.

The photos primarily set the physical context for the scene and give the learner some of the visual cues that only pictures can provide. Production of the photos offers far more flexibility than video as the actors in the photographs do not have lines or speak. Further, there is no requirement to have trained actors in the photos as most people can be coached to provide a simulation of a role with little fuss or bother. Using totally different people for the audio and the pictures affords even greater flexibility as it reduces the problems of conflicts in availability and other logistics. In fact the scenarios have been created with a wide range of non-professional performers including work colleagues, partners, neighbours, friends and friends of friends. This flexibility extends to being able to use the same photos, but with a different script, to tell a totally different yet utterly believable story.

With digital cameras, acceptable pictures can be obtained in all sorts of circumstances and even without the need for a professional photographer, although using a skilled photographer does produce consistently pleasing results that are colour corrected, balanced and optimised for final use.
These scenarios have been used to tell the story of a wide range of issues including: a work group in a public service ministry who are under stress from interpersonal conflicts: the manager of a cleaning company who summarily dismissed two of her workers for questioning her treatment of a worker’s sick leave entitlement: case studies designed to support vocational tutors and trainers who are required to handle issues of literacy, numeracy and ESOL (English for Speaker of Other Languages) in their teaching/training practice.

They are designed to engage workplace learners with the complexity and infinite variability of human relationships and the dynamics of social groups, whether in the workplace, on the sports field, in the classroom, in a training environment or at home.

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Education VS Training

In an earlier post I mentioned that I recently presented at a Blended Learning Conference in Auckland. I was one of only 2 or 3 who were at the conference from academia, the rest of the delegates were from the corporate, business or industry sectors. I found this very interesting as it highlighted one of the a major difference between Higher Education’s view of teaching and learning and that of the corporate / business and industry sectors.

It seems top me that HE has a preoccupation with qualifications and that the teaching and learning strategy, philosophy and practice all serve this end. This is entirely understandable as qualifications are what they get funded by the government to deliver. This does, in my view, place a particular emphasis on the way in which subjects are organised, structured and taught and how learning is measured. In the world of business and industry, modes of teaching and learning, apart from training for legal compliance and certification, are principally focused on addressing specific issues to do with the efficient and effective carrying out of the business of the enterprise, such as problems of performance, new skill development, teamwork and so on.

These differences in approach are mainly focused around the central teaching and learning paradigms of each sector. The HE sector, in general, aims to have their learners readied for the world of work, and so the focus is on having their learners gain the specified qualifications that the various occupational contexts demand as a means of gaining employment within that context. While strenuous efforts are made to bring industrial or business practice relevance to the taught subjects, and even in some cases strong emphasis placed on so-called authentic or “real world” assessment, it is not possible to know where a particular student might end up. Consequently the teaching and learning approach, by necessity, is generalised,  with an emphasis on theoretical and prescribed knowledge with the expectation that this will be translated into the particular working context the learner will hopefully move into upon graduation.

On the other hand the business and industry sector learners are already employed and their context is well understood. The training and development that happens there is primarily centred on doing the work more efficiently. effectively and productively. Less emphasis is placed on the theoretical component of what’s being taught and far more focus is given to the experiential nature of the learning. Further, the teaching and learning is very specific to the workplace context and the particular conditions, product, profitability, sustainability and customer needs and demands of the enterprise.

For many years academic knowledge has been privileged over knowledge generated from the workplace. Somehow workplace knowledge was seen as less important, less intellectually pure and of less value to humankind than its academic counterpart. All this is changing. There a number of reasons for this, for a start workplace knowledge itself has become the study of academic researchers and theorists which is raising its stock as a worthy undertaking. Perhaps of more significance though, is the fact that new knowledge is being generated at a much faster rate in the worlds of business and industry than the halls of academy can keep up with. It is now essential that academic institutions, such as universities and polytechnics, engage and collaborate much more closely with business and industry, particularly in those technology rich enterprises where much of the new knowledge is being generated.

One area where teaching and learning approaches of both the HE and the business/industry sectors needs to converge, and do so rapidly, is in the realm of understanding how people actually learn and how to use techniques, strategies and technologies to enable learning to take place more rapidly, more relevantly and more effectively than has hitherto been the case.

Much of the teaching and learning practices of much of the business/industry sectors are, not to put too fine a point on it, antediluvian. This is not to say that much of the teaching and learning practices of our universities and polytechnics are models of excellence, far from it. However, by the very nature of these places, they produce significant pockets of innovation and breakthrough that really do perform at a very high level of excellence and effectiveness indeed. The challenge is to somehow migrate the knowledge and skills out of the silos of academic institutions into the workplace so that they may benefit the learners in the workplace.

Enough on this for now. More later.
Kia Kaha

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Building a Blended Solution

One of the recurring themes in discussion about traditional modes of training and education is the fact that it no longer meets the needs of employers and workplace learners alike. Laura Overton in an article in Trainigzone (1) made this point:

We have to face up to the fact that the classroom, as the only focus for acquiring skills, no longer cuts it with the learner in the workplace for a number of reasons. In fact, technology has an important role to play in ensuring that the availability of workplace learning becomes more flexible.

It has been suggested that only 10% of traditional forms of workplace training expenditure can be expected to transfer to the workplace(1) In many cases, traditional forms of training are either irrelevant to the organization’s real needs or there is too little connection made between the training and the workplace demands. Even when training or new learning, conducted in typical training room environments did have relevance and had clear connection to the workplace context, there is another problem, the longevity of the training effect. Transferring the training to the workplace can and frequently does encounter barriers that tend to dissipate the training effect within a short time span. Some of these barriers can include:

  • no reinforcement on the job due to lack of follow-up support
  • interference from immediate workplace, such as heavy workload or other urgent demands;
  • non-supportive organisational culture that undermines training and development through neglect or lack of committment about the value of training and development
  • separation from inspiration or support of the trainer once the training event is finished
  • pressure from peers to resist the changes that the training may bring, because it is seen as threatening to the status quo

Add to this the costs of traditional training events, especially when the workforce is geographically distributed is expensive (e.g. travel, venue costs accommodation, etc.). It is also, disruptive and time-consuming. An effective blended learning approach can reduce costs, reduce workplace disruption, save time and provide a better ROI on training & development.It can also address transfer of learning barriers by using eLearning to extend the learning transfer effect by keeping the learners engaged, encouraged & supported beyond the original face-to-face training event, to the point where the learning becomes integrated into the workplace.

Another consideration is that of the demographics and generational differences of those in the workplace. Millennials, (those born after 1980), expect to access needed information from multiple platforms, most of which use web-based technology(4). Web 2.0 applications such as web-based social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Bebo, Flickr, You Tube etc.) and wireless telephony has transformed the way people connect, relate, communicate and learn.The very ubiquitousness of the internet and the world-wide web means that it has become an essential tool of business – so why not use it to educate, train & collaborate to share knowledge.

However, moving from traditional classroom teaching and training practice to a blended learning solution does require a different set of skills and a different decision-making process. When considering what tools to use you need to take into consideration a number of different factors. This graphic provides a useful snapshot of the sorts of things to take account of.


(2) Baldwin, T.T., Ford, J.K. (1988) Transfer of training: a review and directions for future research. Personnel Psychology, 41:63-105.
(3) Vicki Heath, Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd.
(4)“Managing Millennials” Claire Raines & Associates Web site;;

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A Blended Learning Approach

What is Blended Learning?

There are a number of definitions of of Blended Learning, floating around in the cyber-ether. This from Curtis Bonk and co:

“Blended Learning: the purposeful integration of traditional face-to-face learning environments with computer / web-mediated and distributed learning environments.”

Josh Bersin suggests that the key to Blended learning is a matter of:

“selecting the right combination of media & mode of delivery that will drive the highest business impact for the lowest possible cost.”

I personally view the notion of Blended Learning simply a case of:

“Using the best possible combination of delivery modes to achieve the best possible learning / training outcomes in the best possible way, for the best possible cost.”

Of course Blended learning is not new, educationalists have been mixing and matching media and teaching strategies for decades, but what is now generally meant by the term Blended Learning is the mixing of face-to-face teaching with online resources, course content and assessment materials. This particular interpretation of Blended learning is the result of the increasing convergence (some may say infiltration) of computers and online technologies into the traditional modes of teaching and learning as this graphic indicate:

The use of computing and internet technologies in teaching and learning can take on any number of flavours, from using a LMS or VLE as an electronic filing cabinet to park hand outs, through to a course or training event that is almost entirely online, with maybe just a token or voluntary attendance at a face -to-face session.

If you imagine the possible range of uses for online teaching and learning resources /content as a continuum it would probably look something like this:

What’s often asked about this model, “Is where is the optimal Blended Learning point along this continuum? A natural enough question I guess, but the reality is that there is no fixed optimal point – it’s very much a case of what’s the best combination of modes for the learning need at hand, given the inevitable constraints of budget, time and context. It’s also a case of playing to the strengths of each mode and doing what each mode is best at.

For instance, for learners the F2F classroom experience is familiar, well understood, addresses social learning needs & takes advantage of visual cues, informal interactions & spontaneous discussions. It is less useful when course activities tend to have a “one size fits all” approach, progress at a rate that is too slow, too fast or simply too tedious. When you are stuck in a classroom with 20 others it’s difficult to skip ahead or go back to something you didn’t really get. Traditional classroom learning lacks the convenience & access options of online learning.

For many teachers/trainers the F2F environment usually operates within known and well unmderstood parameters and comfort levels. Classroom teaching allows on the fly responses to learners’ questions and for facilitating engaging classroom discussion in real time and of course being able to take advantage of spontaneous teaching opportunities. This is what most teachers thrive on and what can be so rewarding about the paractice of teaching and training.

However, what is also true is that traditional F2F teaching only allows for limited numbers at a time. The pace of the teaching process can frustrate those for whom it is too slow/fast and dominant personalities can sway or sidetrack the direction of teaching/training. There is also an inevitable lack of time for individual needs and the classroom experience is seriously hampered by a lack of scheduling flexibility, particularly organisations that have geaographically distributed learners.

The online environment als has similar strengths and weaknesses. For learners online learning does provide the possibility for greater individualisation of attention and content for learners. It can more easily address individual learning styles, needs & expertise and perhaps it’s greatest strength its convenience of time & place access. That said it’s also true that the online learning environment can involve technical and digital literacy isues that can act as significant barrier to learning. It can also also frustrate & demoralise non-technical types; is more isolating and requires more self-reliance, independence and self-direction on the part of the learner.

Teachers find the online environment can allow for much richer individual attention over time & distance, along with deeper and broader engagement with and between learners as well as having a wider range of resources to employ. The drawback for many teachers though is that more work is involved in developing materials for online course content. It also requires higher levels of technicalskills than many have as a matter of course and requires more time in actually facilitating online courses and communication with learners.

That said, what determines the mode and ratio of a Blended learning approach is very much based on the way the learning design is addressed. First and foremost the decision as to what technology may be included is something that should not be even considered tillall the other learning design issues have been addressed. In other words don’t start with the mode of delivery! Start with a systematic learning design process! You need ask the following questions to get this systematic design process underway:

  • What is the problem that the training is meant to address & is it the real one?
  • What are the instructional goals?
  • What is the learner’s workplace context for the learning /training?
  • What are the desired learning outcomes?
  • How will/should the learning be assessed?
  • What will be the teaching & learning strategies?
  • What is the time frame for development & delivery of the course / training event?
  • What resources of budget and skills are required & available for the development of the training course/event
  • How will you know the if the desired learning /training outcomes have been achieved?

Only after you have considered these questions should you ask yourself:

  • What is the best blend of instruction & mode of delivery to achieve the desired outcomes?

Bersin & Associates (2003) Blended learning: What Works. (Italics mine)
Bonk, C. J. & Graham, C. R. (Eds.) (2006) Handbook of blended learning: Global Perspectives, local designs. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer Publishing.

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Early attrition and drop out in eLearning

Early attrition in eLearning

In part, this blog entry draws on a couple of conference presentations and journal articles that I have given or written. It is a topic about which I hear a lot of conversations, often as a reason why eLearning is too hard to really commit to.

The issue of drop-outs and retention in eLearning courses are a concern, particularly for institutional managers and for government and their agencies who are acutely focused on return on investment of public monies and the rules and metrics around funding higher education (Yorke, 2004), While many of the issues related to attrition over the life of a programme have been widely researched, what has not been, is the rate of and reasons for withdrawal in the very early stages of an online programme. Simpson (2004), reports that the experience of the UK Open University is that 35% or more of eLearners withdraw before submitting their first assignment (p. 83), which suggests that a learner’s initial experience with eLearning may well have a significant impact on a decision to drop out.

Why should this be so? I believe a significant contributor to learners dropping out early from an eLearning course is related to the complexity of the learning tasks that confronts a learner engaging with eLearning, especially for the first time, and the degree to which he/she experiences cognitive overload brought about by the multiple learning curves that confront a learner at the start of any course of online study.

The multi-dimensional learning tasks of the first time eLearner

I propose a conceptual model which identifies the multiple learning tasks that a first-time eLearner must deal with immediately and simultaneously on embarking on an eLearning course. These are: (1) negotiating the technology; (2) negotiating the course website; (3) negotiating the course content (4) becoming an eLearner (5) negotiating CMC interaction.

1. Negotiating the technology: This is where an eLearner is required to come to terms with the computing technologies involved. Osika and Sharp, (2002) comment that not only does a learner have to master the course material presented in course, but they must also become competent in using the range of technologies involved in online learning. Many overestimate their own skills in computing and underestimate the broader range of skills required by an eLearner. It also brings learners face to face with the vagaries of computing technology and their feelings of helplessness when technical support is not immediately available or easily accessed.

2. Negotiating the Learner Management System (LMS) interface:  In this the leaner has to develop a mental model of the content structure and navigation system in order to find his/her way around. Many learners do not have the experience of ‘drilling down’ through a deep website, preferring instead to “Google” many websites[1].They tend only to peruse one or two pages until they find what they want. The site and content structure of an eLearning course is often multi-levelled and deep, requiring familiarity and understanding of the functionality of the LMS.

3. Negotiating the learning content: In this the learner has to engage with the learning materials, readings, activities and assessments that make up a programme of study.  It should be noted that this anxiety of negotiating the content may have two component parts: Confronting the actual content and of becoming a learner again. Many learners experience some apprehension when learning something for the first time. Negotiating the content relates more to the ability to master the material covered in the course. Levels of experience, pre-knowledge and aptitude would be factors in determining the level of confidence or anxiety experienced.

Anxiety on becoming a learner again is more likely to relate to thoughts of whether one is capable of learning anything again after a long period without formal learning experience. This is especially so if the potential learner had poor experiences in the secondary school system or earlier.  Thoughts like “Am I up to it? Am I clever/disciplined or literate enough? Will the others be smarter or more knowledgeable than me? Will I make a fool of myself?” All would contribute to levels of learner anxiety.

4. Becoming an eLearner: In this a learner is required to effectively abandon his/her existing mental model of what it is to be a learner in a formal learning situation. For most learners, this is likely to be the model of a teacher led classroom. eLearners need to embrace a model based on a self-directed and motivated learner who is physically isolated from fellow learners and the tutor; and communicating primarily by electronic text.

5. Negotiating CMC interaction: In this a learner has to undertake the learning tasks involved in interacting with peers via synchronous and asynchronous Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). For those unused to the format and conventions of Discussion Forums and Bulletin Boards, communication via text, and with others a learner doesn’t know, can be quite intimidating. Klem (1998, p. 1 cited in Smith, 1999, p.3) puts it this way: “…some are afraid they will embarrass themselves with postings that are not clever, erudite or interesting to others. In addition, learners can become quickly overloaded if they are unable to get online for a period of time and the quantity of discussion forum contributions has grown to such an extent that trying to work through the backlog can be overwhelming and daunting. (Fox, 2002)

What this graphic shows is that:

  • first-time eLearners start with limited understanding of what’s involved in terms of online competency demands, skills, relevant knowledge structures and confidence and start off with relatively high expectations;
  • once confronted by the  lack of certainty with the new and unfamiliar digital environment learners may experience growing feelings of anxiety and unease as they attempt to deal with the steep and multi-dimensional learning curves
  • this can lead to cognitive overload for some and to feelings of being consciously incompetent, feelings of being unable to cope and of being overwhelmed
  • if discomfort and anxiety are sufficiently acute for learners, then this can cause them to believe that dropping out is only sensible alternative and option

However if learners can be nursed through initial stages, then:

  • feelings of competence & mastery over technology begin to rise rapidly
  • once confidence, capability & competence rise, motivation increases & learners begin to enjoy this mode of learning and are more likely to stay the course
  • demand for more face-2-face contact decline rapidly
  • the quality and depth of work noticeably improves
  • providing the course is well facilitated, the exchanges of views & experience through eLearning Discussion Forums take on more substance, become more self-regulating and are often reported as one of the most significant and valuable aspects of learning experience

It is clear that these complex and multiple learning tasks can significantly contribute to a novice eLearner’s cognitive load at the start of an online course, which can lead to rapid rises in anxiety for the learner; feelings of being overwhelmed and of despair, coupled with a sense that eLearning is just too hard. The result is the virtual shutting down of the learner’s learning function. At this point, the decision to drop out may seem the only option. Successfully negotiating this early experience depends very much on the relevant skills, circumstances, motivations and personal attributes of the learner. It follows then, that paying particular attention to how an eLearning course is structured and introduced and the manner in which the learner is inducted can make a very important difference in a learner deciding whether or not to engage and persist or to drop out.

Strategies for fostering perseverance & motivation

To address the potential for learner drop out consider the following:

  • provide an online orientation module a week or two before first course startsand allow learners to explore;
  • provide animated step-by-step instructions for navigating LMS/VLE & course architecture;
  • where practical and possible run face-2-face induction/orientation workshops to introduce technology & LMS/VLE;
  • provide opportunities to practice meaningful Discussion Forum activities in f2f workshops;
  • advise learners of cognitive overload effect & reassure them that it is common, recognised and that support will be provided;
  • pre-emptive learner support provided at this stage pays dividends;
  • actively follow-up on all learners who show signs of struggling.

As part of the course design:

  • have as an aim a conscious decision to reduce early attrition and drop-outs
  • use the early stages of a course design to build confidence & develop technical capability and  fluency
  • simplify/ limit navigation options early on
  • focus on having some fun early on with ice-breaker type of activities that build skills
  • make the first course in a programme short, snappy & relatively low in cognitive demand
  • increase complexity in content & assessment activities as course progresses and as learners gain mastery with basic skills
  • start with slow tempo course schedule & ramp up as skills rise

[1] Personal communication with information literacy tutor, CPIT

Fox, S. (2002) Can e-Learning based on Computer-Mediated Communication Improve Distance Education? Working paper, OSCAIL Dublin City University [viewed 2/12/2005]

Klem, W. R., (1998) Eight Ways to get students more engaged in online conferences. Paper presented at TCC Online Conference – Online Instruction: Trends and issues II Cited in Smith. E., (1999) Learning to Learn online, Conference proceedings, ASCILITE Conference, Brisbane 1999

Osika, E.R. &Sharp, D.P. (2002) Minimum technical competencies for distance learning students. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, Vol. 34, (3), 318-325
Simpson, O., (2004) The impact on retention of interventions to support distance learning students. Open Learning, Vol.19, No 1, February.

Yorke, M. (2004) Retention, persistence and success in on-campus higher education, and their enhancement in open and distance learning. Open Learning, Voil 19, (1) 19-32

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