“Successful” online learners are those students who complete their online course. “Unsuccessful” online learners either drop out of the online course or fail its requirements. As we all know, online learning suffers from much higher drop-out rates than face-to-face learning. And since most attrition occurs at the beginning of a program/course, it is important to frontload this preparation and interventions at the beginning of the course. This article offers 10 strategies online programs can undertake to increase learner retention.
- Offer a face-to-face orientation (especially for those new to online learning).
This approach allows instructors and learners to examine the syllabus; learn how to use technology, materials, and procedures; ask questions; and get to know their colleagues and instructor. Such orientations have proved to be an effective strategy for learner completion of online learning experiences.
- Offer orientation in the distance mode in which learners will participate.
Numerous online learning programs, including EdTech Leaders Online (from Education Development Center), offer an online orientation for online learning. This is obviously a more relevant and appropriate strategy where technology literacy is high. Such online orientations allow learners to participate as much or as little as needed and focus only on areas where they need help and they are often held both synchronously and asynchronously, using video, audio, chat, and web-based platforms to provide help as needed. One teacher professional development project in which I was involved, which used videoconferencing as the main instructional mode, provided a two-hour videoconferencing orientation for teacher-learners. This orientation focused on synchronous, video-based collaboration with remote groups; participation in video-based discussions, and videoconferencing etiquette—extremely important in videoconferencing, where off-site learners are often “ignored”—within one’s local group and between remote groups.
- Organize learners into learning teams, cohorts, or a community.
Online learners need access to peers. Research is quite clear that feelings of social and academic integration and being an active part of an online learning community result in higher online completion rates than learning alone or participating in self-paced study courses.
- Help learners develop self-study and time-management habits.
A number of successful online learning programs do this in their orientations. In contrast, online programs with high attrition rates often do little to help online learners develop schedules, techniques for completing work, and skills needed for successful completion of an online course of study. Potential and first-time online learners should be helped to manage their time, develop a study schedule, and set up routines and procedures by which to accomplish their online work. To reduce the amount of up-front and ongoing support and guidance learners may demand of their instructors, online programs can employ a couple of strategies. First, they can work to help learners become successful online students, helping them to cultivate independent study strategies and skills. These include time management and print and electronic resources retrieval; self-study strategies, so that students are not overwhelmed by course requirements; evaluation and problem-solving skills and, where needed, enhanced reading comprehension, writing, and technology skills. Distance education programs should also follow up with teachers to make sure that they are adhering to their schedule and plan.
- Help learners with writing.
Web-based learning is still a read-and-write medium. Many learners have problems with the rhetorical, grammatical, and mechanical conventions associated with writing. An online program in Indonesia, which I designed, devoted two days of its face-to-face orientation to helping online learners (teachers) develop writing skills. Learners examined the structure and characteristics of good written posts (anchors). They practiced writing online posts alone and with their coaching partner, practiced responding to discussion questions using Google Docs, provided one another with feedback, and revised their posts. Finally, learners helped to develop indicators for rubrics so that they understood the assessment criteria for their own written work. The online course also provided other opportunities for communication, such as voice tools within an online course, so that online learners who had undiagnosed disabilities or were simply poor writers could still participate in online communication.
- Provide some level of technology training.
One area in which potential distance learners often do receive preparation for distance learning is technology. Many times, though, the technology instruction is both overly expansive and decontextualized from the learning experience as a whole. While potential learners need instruction in the technology they will use, it should be just enough, just in time, and job-embedded.
- Provide structure for online learners.
It is important to set aside a learning space, establish dedicated times when learners can use computers or access television broadcasts, and provide live technical support and a support person who at specific times can help learners with difficulties they may have with content, directions, an assignment, or technology.
- Educate potential learners and instructors about the “spirit” of online learning.
Beyond following the “letter” of online education, learners must really understand and believe in the “spirit” of online learning. They must be educated to realize that online education, particularly online learning, requires a high degree of individual and collaborative involvement. Without the discussion and collaboration that fuel the engine of online learning, learning grinds to a halt.
- Offer blended learning opportunities.
Some may feel that this approach defeats the purpose of an online program; however, combining online learning with a significant portion of face-to-face assistance offers greater opportunity for successful completion of a distance education program, since blended learning offers several advantages. First, it offers personalized and individualized just-in-time teaching, learning, and support. Second, blended learning opportunities bridge the psychological, conceptual, and programmatic distances between instructor and learner, between the distance program and the learner, and between the distance program and schools. Finally, there is evidence that highly technical subjects, such as music, mathematics, and pedagogy, may simply be more difficult to learn online or via distance and thus require learning opportunities or technologies (such as videoconferencing for learning pedagogical techniques) that provide a more blended experience.
- Use technology to track student participation
Most Learning Management Systems now come with analytics and data dashboards that track an online learner’s progress, and inform both the online instructor and online learner when the latter is falling behind. It’s important to consider the robustness of the analytics of the LMS you use for your online program, recognizing that not all are equal. (While Moodle’s has improved greatly, the LMS that impresses me in terms of its analytics is Desire2Learn). Similarly, there are apps that allow students to track their own online learning progress (Florida’s Virtual High School has a number of these).
- Organize learners into learning teams, cohorts, or a community.