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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