No one can deny that interest in offering online learning is increasing as schools figure out ways to increase enrollment and decrease costs. Bill Gates is predicting that “in the near future the web will be the place to learn”. His foundation even launched the Next-Generation Learning Challenges campaign that is offering grant money to schools that use technology to improve education. In addition, there was research released by the Department of Education Meta-Analysis that stated “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction”.
This is exciting! Finally, online learning receives kudos! I believe that online learning can contain the same rigor and in-depth learning as any face-to-face program. My opinion stems from experiencing an online program as a graduate student and I believe online learning provides an equal to, if not more enhanced learning environment. But there is another side. There is evidence that there is a larger dropout rate with online programs and there is no specific research showing evidence of why this is occurring. This creates some ambivalent feelings with instructors when asked about their interest in teaching online and is a huge barrier to the future and credibility of online learning because schools depend on students finishing their degrees and moving successfully into the workforce. Following are 5 elements I believe are critical to the success of increasing student retention in the online environment and then will further discuss them in Part 2.
- All programs should be developed with best practices for online learning and provide all of the rigor of a face-to-face program. Some instructors simply transfer their in-class pedagogy to an online format and limit interactions.
- Every school offering online programs should develop a student readiness assessment tool. This assists the school in identifying students who are at-risk of not doing well in online courses due to computer skill level, ability to be organized and self-motivated and knowledge of online environment.
- Each online program should provide students with an orientation that covers expectations and introduction to the online environment. This could cover Netiquette and communicating in the online classroom, navigating the CMS/LMS, where to go if they have questions, computer skills needed, syllabus etc...
- Every school should provide 24/7 access to technology support. Many students will be new to the online environment and may have issues with downloads or accessing the multimedia elements.
- Every student should have an opportunity to interact with classmates and participate in a community.
By including these elements, the online program can create a successful start for the students and:
- increase retention
- decrease frustration
- increase ease of access
- connect classmates and decrease isolation
- match expectations