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Why Online Learners Drop Out

June 3, 2001
Related Topics: Training Technology, Featured Article
Creating an online orientation course for new hires seemed like a great ideafor GE Capital. Employees could be brought up to speed quickly and economically,leading to big gains in productivity. There was just one problem. Even thoughthe course was supposed to be a requirement, only about half the participantsactually finished it.

    Welcome to the problem a lot of people in the e-learning industry don't liketo talk about -- high dropout rates for online courses. There are no nationalstatistics, but a recent report in the Chronicle for Higher Education found thatinstitutions report dropout rates ranging from 20 to 50 percent for distancelearners. And administrators of online courses concur dropout rates are often 10to 20 percentage points higher in distance offerings than in their face-to-facecounterparts.

    In 1999, IHEP, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, did a comprehensivereview of the research on the effectiveness of distance learning. It foundevidence of higher dropout rates for distance learners, but concluded, "Theresearch does not adequately explain why the dropout rates of distance learnersare higher."

    But experts in the industry have no shortages of theories, some backed by newresearch. Corporate University Xchange, an education and research-consultingfirm, recently studied corporate e-learners who've taken both asynchronous andsynchronous courses offered either by their companies or external vendors. Thee-learners were asked what they wanted from their courses. Their wish list:Credentials as an outcome -- college credit or a certificate, an activecorrespondence with an online facilitator who has frequent virtual office hours,24/7 technical support, and the ability to start a course anytime.

Reasonsfor High Dropout Rates

  • Students don't have enoughtime
  • Lack of management oversight
  • Lack of motivation
  • Problems with technology
  • Lack of student support
  • Individual learningpreferences
  • Poorly designed course
  • Substandard/inexperiencedinstructors

    These corporate e-learners said their top reason for dropping a course waslack of time. Many had trouble completing courses from their desktops because offrequent distractions from co-workers. Some said they could only access thecourses through the company's intranet, so they couldn't finish theirassignments from home.

Laissez Faire management hurts
    E-learning guru Elliot Masie of the Masie Center believes another big reasoncorporate e-learners drop out is lack of managerial oversight. When someone issent to a classroom-based course, a manager generally has to sign off on it. ButMasie says online courses can fall below a manager's radar.

    That's what GE Capital thinks happened to many of its new employees takingits online orientation course. When the company discovered only half of its newhires completed the five to ten hour course; it launched a Six Sigma study (astatistical quality control analysis) to determine the difference between thosewho finished the course and those who didn't.

    Mike Markovits, who manages GE Capital's Center for Learning andOrganizational Excellence, says the difference had nothing to do with technologyor instructional design. Markovits says, "It all had to do how with howmuch motivation the employees got from management."

    The study found finishing the course was dependent on whether managers gavereinforcement on attendance, how important employees were made to feel, andwhether employee progress in the course was tracked.

    Markovits says GE Capital made several changes in the program as a result ofthe study. Managers received kits to help them explain the importance of thecourse to employees. And GE Capital put together a much better tracking processand trained managers in it. Markovits says they're now studying whether thechanges will improve the course completion rate.

Motivation from within
    Corporate e-learning is particularly susceptible to high dropout rates. Astudent who voluntarily enrolls in an online course because she's hoping anadvanced degree will land her a better job is a much different learner thansomeone who is told to take an online course at work. If a corporate e-learnerisn't internally motivated, a company will have to step in.

    Corporate e-learners also face the same challenges all online students dealwith. Some of the major reasons given for dropping online courses are fairlyobvious: technology problems, lack of support, poorly designed courses, andinexperienced or incompetent instructors. Individual learning preferences alsocome into play.

    But in just a short time, e-learning providers have learned a great dealabout how to meet those challenges. At the Penn State World Campus, the onlinecourse completion rate for Fall 2000 was 95%, up from 80% in Spring of 1998.Jean McGrath, the Director of Student Services for World Campus DistanceEducation, says completion rates have typically not been a problem, probablybecause most students are highly motivated.

    McGrath says few students take classes for mere self-improvement; most do itto improve their situation in the job market. Most World Campus courses areasynchronous-only (no live instruction), leading toward a degree orcertification. Most students enroll individually, although many companies payfor employee tuition.

Realistic expectations
    McGrath attributes the improving completion rate to managing studentexpectations up front, better course design, and instructors getting better withprofessional development and experience. Penn State used to advertise that adegree was "just a click away," which underestimated the rigor of PennState's online courses. Those courses required much work as traditional classes-- about ten to twelve hours a week. New students can also prepare for theirfirst online course by taking World Campus101.

    McGrath says students also benefit from high interactivity with faculty andamong each other. Classes vary in the types of communication, with heavy use ofbulletin board discussions and e-mails. The instructor monitors participationand e-mails students who aren't contributing. McGrath says instructors are keyto the success of the World Campus. "You can have best course out there,but if you don't have instructors working with students, people will dropout," she says.

    UCLA is also proud of its completion rate for online courses. It's now at 85to 89%, compared to 50-60% in 1996. UCLA's e-learners enroll via corporationsand individually. Like Penn State, most courses are asynchronous-only andrigorous, requiring ten to twelve hours of work weekly.

    UCLA also has high interactivity between students and instructors, but KathyMcGuire, the Director of Distance Learning, says the biggest reason forimproving completion rates is what she calls their "concierge service"-- course managers who act as a student resource for questions. They notice ifstudents are going into the course and send reminders if they can't find them --acting as "canaries in the mine."

    Course managers handle technical issues themselves and may refer coursecontent questions to instructors. If a question is about an instructor, it'sreferred to an administrator. McGuire says it doesn't work for instructors to dothis kind of handholding because they want to get to content. "The only wayyou can get an online venue to work is if it's seamless and transparent for boththe instructor and the student," McGuire says.

    UCLA also has an extensive, five to six week training program for onlineinstructors. No one can teach online unless they've participated in it. And eventhough there are course managers, McGuire says instructors generally log on fiveto seven times a week, several times a day, to respond to students' threadeddiscussions. She says students can't sleep in the back of an online class.

    Sun Microsystems Inc. also found out how crucial interactivity can be in thesuccess of a course. Company studies show only 25% of employees finish learningcontent that's strictly self-paced. But 75% finish when given similarassignments and access to tutors through e-mail, phone or threaded discussions.

    The challenge of getting students to complete online classes is also a majorfocus for us at NYUonline, the first for-profit e-learning subsidiary of a majorAmerican university, New York University. Last summer, NYUonline conductedpilots with corporate learners; purposely making sure participants weren'toffered any incentives for completing the course. Some e-learners took only astand-alone, nine-hour asynchronous course; while others were also offered livesessions in addition to the self-paced course.

The power of live sessions
    NYUonline found that e-learners who took only the asynchronous course weremuch less likely to complete it than e-learners who also participated in livesessions. And the kind of session made a difference as well. Two-thirds of thelearners who discussed topics covered in the self-paced portion of the course(high-integration sessions) finished the course, a much higher rate than thosewho discussed general topics during the live sessions (low-integrationsessions).

    NYUonline also found that more than half of the e-learners who participatedin the high-integration live events were sufficiently motivated to take theoptional final examination and receive a grade for the course. In the grouptaking the low-integration live events, just over ten percent risked taking afinal exam.

    David Hawthorne, senior vice president of learning environments for NYUonline,hypothesizes that not only do live events lead to a higher rate of completion,but those who participate in highly-integrated live events are far moreconfident of their knowledge -- that is, more willing to use the knowledge insituations where they might be judged. "If you want people to actuallychange their behavior as the result of learning, you must do more than transferknowledge," Hawthorne says. "You must also build their confidence touse the new knowledge. "

    NYUonline asked the participants in its pilot study what incentives theythought would make a difference in helping them to complete an online class. Theonly incentive they all agreed would help is personal feedback from theinstructor. Hawthorne agrees that a personal connection is the most importantfactor in boosting completion rates. He says it's a powerful motivator when aninstructor tells a student, "You're really getting this."

    This kind of research has helped NYUonline develop best practices to ensurehigh completion rates for the corporate e-learner. Some are no-brainers; awell-designed course, an experienced and engaging instructor, a high level oftechnical support, and a detailed pre-course orientation. But the two areas thatappear to be most critical are high interactivity and managerial oversight.

    The best kind of interactivity not only creates a sense of community forparticipants; it also stimulates learning through discussing ideas andpracticing skills. Blending highly integrated live sessions with an asynchronouscourse may well be the gold standard when in comes to keeping e-learnersmotivated and involved. NYUonline's research shows that providing a one-hourlive session for every four hours of self-paced study appears to be a highlyeffective mix.

The social factor
    Studying in cyberspace can be lonely and isolating. Bringing people togetherfor live discussions not only results in learning during the actual synchronoussessions, but makes it much more likely students will persevere through theself-paced portions of the course. Students in NYUonline's pilots admitted livesessions could be inconvenient, but were well worth the effort.

    Nearly all the NYUonline students who completed the course said the livesessions provided an emotional lift. Hawthorne says the emotional connectionbetween instructor and student may be even more important for online coursesthan in the classroom. Hawthorne says there is always personal recognition foran online student, which may not be the case for many classroom students. Andonline instructor must learn a student's name, which is very satisfying to mostpeople.

    But it's not always possible to deliver synchronous, live sessions. So, if acourse is to be entirely self-paced, it's important to build asynchronous formsof interactivity such as e-mail and threaded discussions on bulletin boards.Tutors, or course facilitators, can be a more cost-efficient way to provideinteractivity than having an instructor do it all. Student-to-studentinteractivity is also a powerful aid to learning. In online MBA programs, teamsare often seen as more valuable to learners than interaction with faculty.

    To make interactivity between students and instructors cost-effective,instructors need to work at more efficient ways to respond to students thanpersonal e-mails. Some instructors develop an online database of responses tofrequently asked questions. Others use automatic e-mail response systems thattell students their question or assignment has arrived, with an estimatedresponse time. One instructor of an introductory computer class says hiscompletion rates jumped from 62 to 90 percent when he switched to a moreinteractive Internet program that allowed him to hold regular chats and organizee-mail messages more efficiently.

    More advanced software can also help instructors track student progress. Aprogram called Archipelago allows instructors to see when students log on andoff the course and how much time they spend on each assignment. Instructors ortutors can pinpoint potential dropouts and send them e-mails.

    Simple strategies include answering individual questions for the entire classon a bulletin board or requesting the class respond to a question, whichleverages the power of group interaction. Instructors can even set up phonetrees so students get to know each other.

    But even a highly interactive course with a great instructor can go by thewayside if a company fails to provide sufficient oversight and incentives. Toooften, companies dump courses on their employees and then wonder why they don'tfinish them. Or they expect an external vendor to run everything, but thatdoesn't work since their employees don't report to the e-learning provider.Company managers must supervise e-learning the way any other importantinitiative must be managed.

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