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Retention Strategies for Online Distance Education

Date posted: December 17, 2013

Online learning has experienced soaring popularity in recent years, particularly with the ongoing phenomenon of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). While vastly expanding access to higher education with flexible and often innovative instructional methods, a major concern for this new era of distance education is student retention. Retention rates have always been lower in open and distance learning in comparison to traditional education (generally 20-30% lower), but according to a study from earlier this year, the average completion rate for MOOCs was below 7%. A Princeton University history course hosted by Coursera recruited 83,000 students with only 0.8% reaching the end.

princetonSome would argue that the massive reach of these courses assumes a greater drop-out rate, that accessing even in a small percentage of a hundred thousand students still exceeds what would be possible in a conventional classroom, or as Time Magazine observed, the lack of cost or admissions requirements is comparable to “borrowing a book from the library and browsing it casually or returning it unread.” While in the case of MOOCs, many who begin courses inevitably leave after finding the information they were seeking or may never have had intention of completing assessment, completion rates are generally acknowledged to be indicative of a course’s success. For years, attrition in online education was accepted as one of the consequences of engaging non-traditional students with busy schedules and competing commitments in an open entry environment, but this view is changing.

Consequences of Low Student Retention

There is a clear connection between retention and revenue when tuition is paid, with retention initiatives estimated to be three to five times more cost-effective than student recruitment efforts. As higher education becomes increasingly competitive, students consider retention as one factor in an institution’s perceived quality and in some parts of the world it is linked to governmental funding. There are financial and reputational implications for colleges and universities, not to mention the personal impact on students and lost potential for society. Unless dropout rates of open and distance education can substantially improve, discerning prospective students will opt for programs that promise a better likelihood of eventual success. Although the many reasons a student may want or need to withdraw from a program of study make the issue challenging, online retention is recognized as a critical component of a school’s success.

Keeping pace with the rapid growth of distance education implies united institutional commitment, developing positive student-faculty relationships to strengthen connections with the school, as with any other student. Just as there is no single cause for attrition, there is no single solution but rather a series of interventions that can combine to deliver measurable results. Retention can thus be considered at all stages of the student lifecycle, beginning at pre-enrolment.

Pre-enrolment Retention Strategies

The better a course meets student expectations, the more likely they will complete it. It is important that students choose the right course for their needs, both in terms of content and level. These decisions are based on some combination of course titles and descriptions, guidance, peer opinions and sometimes trial or “taster” materials. Insufficient pre-enrolment resources may be a result of conflicts between recruitment and retention; emphasizing accessibility and minimizing the level of difficulty to boost admissions.

  • Course titles and descriptions: Descriptions should be long enough to be sufficiently comprehensive yet easily understandable. Write in precise language, limiting the use of potentially unfamiliar terminology. Clarify assumptions regarding prerequisites and previous qualifications required.
  • Course choice guidance: It may be unfeasible to offer much one-to-one advice for mass distance education, and there is evidence of students being reluctant to seek counsel or ignoring suggestions. Still, skilled advisers with access to more detailed information can clarify issues and steer students in the right direction.
  • Student comments: Potential students naturally look to others who have previously taken a course as one factor in the decision. Negative comments are generally in the context of a balanced opinion while providing realistic interpretations of material. An average of 10 comments displayed per course is sufficient for fairness.
  • “Taster Packs”: Giving prospective students the opportunity to survey typical sample materials for a short “test drive” of a course can be a valuable method of determining applicability.

Providing an orientation to distance learning before the start date can maximize student success, including best practices for interaction using the discussion board and other helpful hints for new online students. Address expectations about mastering the college experience while listing available resources and contacts.

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Strategies for Improving Online Retention

Distance education administrators are increasingly requiring instructors to have a plan for integrating retention strategies into their classes, establishing direct contact and clarifying course requirements. Since distance learners need ongoing, regular contact with an institution, they are best served by establishing a single representative who works specifically with online students. Online program coordinators encourage and facilitate communication between students and faculty members, track student progress toward completion, advocate for students in administrative matters, and intervene when progress is at risk.

This video explains their role in online student retention:

As many online courses experience a sharp drop-off after the first week, early engagement is critical. Instructors should make a good first impression with a welcoming and informative introduction, and responding individually to student introductions on the discussion board, if possible, sets the tone for a collaborative community. Here are some other tips:

  • Hosting live webinars can be an excellent engagement tool for students to meet advisors and faculty, learning strategies for success and information about resources, policies and procedures; before the program begins or throughout various stages of completion.
  • An early alert program can be used to identify and assist underperforming students in the first few weeks, recommending non-participating students to seek assistance with appropriate support staff. Students receive an automated message such as, “Hey, we haven’t heard from you for a while – is there anything we can do to help you?” Student Relationship Management software shares relevant information across contact points, automating processes for timely, effective and efficient communications.
  • Instructor/adviser visibility through immediate feedback and comments on discussion boards improves engagement. Communicate from the start how timely responses will be, encourage contributions with motivating and constructive recommendations, and express appreciation when students return after being absent. Designate specific times when students can chat with an advisor for general questions.
  • Student peer mentoring can provide assistance with frequently asked questions, facilitate discussions, track participation and model behaviour of the successful online student. Colleges with online courses that selected former students to become peer mentors found increased retention and greater student success.
  • Use social media to meet students where they are, providing information about important deadlines or opportunities, broadcasting relevant messages, and adding engaging multimedia study resources. Students learn more effectively in collaborative environments by sharing ideas and experiences, and social media marketing can be leveraged in this regard.
  • Establishing learning communities has been very effective in improving student retention rates for smaller online communities and can be integrated into existing social networks to connect learners with the assistance and resources they need.
  • Exit surveys that ask early departures why they left the course can provide simple, anecdotal feedback.

Adding the latter technique to more detailed quantitative techniques using Google Analytics provides data-driven evidence to measure completion rates from one year to the next, determining student satisfaction and the effectiveness of content, instruction and retention strategies.

What strategies has your school used to increase online student retention?