Curtailing Dropouts at Online Universities

The methods used to retain online students aren't working. Some schools are personalizing the process.

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Why do so many students drop out of online classes? 

Online courses require more discipline by students—and more effort by professors and advisers—than traditional courses, educators say. 

A study released this month by professors at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., indicates that online students that commonly used retention strategies such as friendly E-mails from professors aren't enough to keep the students from giving up and dropping out. "Students' expectations are misaligned with what online learning actually is," says Elke Leeds, assistant professor of information systems at Kennesaw State and one of the study's authors. "They come in thinking that it's easier. While it can be more convenient, the truth is you have to be self motivated; you have to be dedicated." 

[Read more about Kennesaw State and other award winning online programs.] 

The Kennesaw State professors tested the effectiveness of common online retention practices such as welcome E-mails, phone calls from professors, and quizzes on the syllabus with online students in some courses. By the end of the courses, the retention rate for the control and treatment groups were nearly identical: 69 and 70 percent, respectively. 

Hope Baker, an associate professor at Kennesaw State, claims retaining students, especially those who shy away from contact with professors, is far more difficult online. Baker tries to keep in regular E-mail or phone contact with her online students, but notes her retention rates are 15 to 20 percentage points lower in online courses than in the ones she teaches on campus. "For those [students] you can't make contact with, who won't respond to E-mails, who just check in and do the minimum amount, you have no idea what's going on with them," she says. "At least in a face-to-face class you can make eye contact or say 'see me—come by after class.'" 

[Read about problems facing online programs.] 

Recognizing that common strategies are failing, some colleges are trying new and extra steps to keep online students engaged. At the University of West Georgia, retention rates for online students dipped as low as 68 percent in recent years, compared to about 90 percent for traditional students. Alarmed by the low figures, the school sought to make improvements. To give instructors firsthand knowledge of the frustrating roadblocks online students can face as they learn, UWG required them to take online classes on how to teach online. "Faculty training is too often focused just on the technology of teaching online," says Melanie Clay, the school's associate dean of extended degree programs. "They really need training in knowing what it's like to be an online student and what their role in helping them succeed. In an online classroom their role is more than serving as a content guide." 

UWG administrators also ramped up their handholding of online students. Before students are allowed to register for their online classes, UWG staffers check to make sure they understand the workload, by testing students on key facts from their online orientation. Once classes start, faculty members who can't reach a student, or have other concerns, report the student to academic advisers, who also get weekly reports of students who have missed assignments or are performing poorly. The advisers act as coaches and cheerleaders for online students, calling and E-mailing with updates on academic deadlines, advice on how to connect with tutors or counselors, and simple encouragement. The efforts have paid off as West Georgia's online retention rates reached 89 percent in the summer of 2010. 

[Read these five tips before you pursue an online degree.] 

Such a personalized approach is lauded by Leeds at Kennesaw, where similar practices have been implemented. Now, before they can enroll in online courses, students are required to take aptitude tests on subject matter and their facility with technology. The school warns those who score poorly—who are easily confused by technology, or don't pay attention to details, for example—that completing a course online is no simple task.