Posted by: Gregory Linton | 07/27/2011

Online Students Have a Higher Failure/Withdrawal Rate

Xu & Jaggars, “Online and hybrid course enrollment Washington state community and technical colleges”

This new study backed by the Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation for Education confirms facts about online education that we already know–namely, that online students have a higher rate of failure and withdrawal than students in face-to-face classrooms. This is troubling because of the increasing emphasis on online education in our country.

The authors, Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars, close the report with a few recommendations. One of those is better faculty preparation for online teaching, but they do not discuss in detail the role that pedagogy plays in online retention. So I would offer some brief suggestions for designing online classes that will keep students engaged.

The problem with online classes in general is that students are not required to attend at a set time in a certain place. Consequently, a student can simply forget about getting online and completing course requirements. Out of sight, out of mind. This explains why their report shows that hybrid classes do not have a higher failure rate than face-to-face classes. In hybrid courses, students are having to show up somewhere on a regular basis, which helps keep their attention on that course.

Just last night, I had one of those recurring dreams that occur when I feel overwhelmed with work. I dream that I am back in high school or college, and the end of the semester has come and suddenly I realize that I forgot to attend a math class (why is it always math?) the entire semester. I scramble to figure out where and when it meets, and then I plan my strategy for asking the teacher for a break. In the dream last night, this was the third time that I had failed to complete the math course, and it was going to keep me from graduating. It’s always a relief to wake up from this dream, but I have had online students over the years for whom this is the reality. For weeks, they have never even signed on to the course, and then suddenly they want to go back and make up everything they had neglected to do.

After nine years of online teaching, I have come to realize that students need deadlines in order to keep them on task. If the deadlines are vague, it is easy for students to put off the work until it is too late for them to complete it. When I started teaching master’s courses online in my current institution, the courses were designed so that all the work just needed to be submitted by the end of the semester. This approach not only set up some students for failure, but it also overwhelmed me with grading. So now all of my online courses, graduate and undergraduate, have weekly deadlines. Certain assignments must be submitted noon on Mondays. Then I usually grade them on Monday afternoons so that the students receive quick feedback. Since adopting this approach, I have had very little trouble with students falling behind, dropping out of the course, or failing.

Of course, there are other ways to keep students engaged in an online course. A key approach that is stressed in the literature is to build an online community. This is another shift that I have made over the years. Requiring at least a couple of posts each week in the online discussion board forces students to log on to the course so that they remember they are actually enrolled in it. It also helps build connections with other students and the professor. And it encourages them to practice critical thinking and reflection about the material. Of course, there are always those few cantankerous students who view this as “busy work,” but most come to enjoy the interaction with other students so that they do not feel isolated.


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