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  http://leahi.kcc.hawaii.edu/tcc98/. 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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