Preventing digital learners from becoming digital dropouts

There is no doubt that online learning has revolutionized the way we deliver education.  You can find everything from a graduate degree in nursing to demonstrations for knitting sox on the internet.

There is the perception that online courses make life easier for students, are more cost effective, and can reach a greater number of learners. Online learning is an attractive alternative for learners in rural or isolated areas, or for working adults whose schedules may interfere with traditionally scheduled on-campus classes. On-line classes offer off-campus access and asynchronous discussions.

Still, there is research to show that online courses experience an exceptionally high dropout rate among students. Studies have shown that students drop out of online classes at rates 15 percent to 20 percent higher than traditional ones.

Who drops out?

Students who are older and employed more hours per week often cite stress and conflict between work and home in trying to balance work and study priorities. Often they were led to believe that not having to attend a regularly scheduled class would somehow make life easier for them.  Additionally, it was found that those mature adults with limited digital literacy experience are generally far less adept at decoding the multi-media interfaces involved with e-learning than their younger counterparts and may be prone to dropping out of an online course.

Among traditional college students, those who were struggling academically and at the lowest level of readiness for college instruction were often the first to drop out of an online course.  Many of these students had the misperception that online courses were “easier.”

Who completes an online course?

A learner’s initial experience with digital instruction may well have a significant impact on a decision to drop out or remain in a class. Most learners who drop an online course, do so in the first few weeks.  The same is true for students enrolled in online degree programs; those who do not complete the degree tend to drop out early in the program.  Several studies reported students’ satisfaction as a major factor that is related to students’ decision to complete a distance education course.

Those who perceive that generally they are less influenced by external events are more likely to remain with an online course than those who perceive that their participation and performance is somehow dictated by forces and events outside their control. These external events may include such things as technical problems with their computer or web connection, pressure of work, family needs and competition for time from other activities.   “Readiness for online learning” is critical in determining a learner’s persistence.

Those learners who have a higher degree of interaction with the faculty/facilitator and other students in an online course also report greater satisfaction with the course.

Students who complete online classes tend to rate these courses very highly. Therefore, the goal when planning an online course should be to keep the students’ satisfaction level with a digital learning program as high as possible, especially in the early weeks of the class.

What can be done to keep learners involved to completion of an e-learning course?

To keep e-learners engaged and satisfied to completion of an online course, consider the following approaches:

  • A face-to-face workshop prior the start of the online distance course can make a significant difference to a first time digital learner’s perception and experience of online learning.
  • Where it is not possible to bring learners together, then use paper-based “How to get started” instruction booklets with screen shots and instructions in simple jargon free language to help get learners up to speed with the technology and web interfaces. This is particularly true for older learners as their comfort level and familiarity with paper documentation is high and readily fits their mental model of instructional texts.
  • Aim to start slowly and build the course tempo over time.  Design the course in such a way that the early tasks are relatively simple so that early success can be achieved by learners.
  • Limit the amount of content specific information and activity in the early stages, and focus on activities that promote the formation of an individual’s identity online, the development of learning group cohesion and the setting of group norms, expectations and the rules around online discussions.
  • To reduce some of the cognitive overloading that digital learners experience at the early stages of an online course,  simplify and limit navigation options early on and release the content as learners gain mastery with some of the basic skills.
  • Use simple online ice-breaking activities that support later more complex tasks.  Some introductory and meaningful discussion board activities can be structured to break down the isolation, inhibitions and reluctance of some learners to engage with online conversations.
  • Actively supporting, encouraging, gently cajoling and following up on learners who seem to be struggling will help to keep wavering learners in the course.

Offer online access to a counselor/advisor in addition to an instructor.

Posted by Sharon Rabb, Project Specialist