Why online courses have low retention rates-and how to boost them

Fred Hurst, senior vice president for extended campuses at Northern Arizona University, said one way online programs can boost retention rates is through competency-based education—a system of learning where student progress is not designed around semesters but around the mastering of concepts at a more personalized pace.

“The self-paced nature of competency-based programs allows students to take the time they need to truly learn a concept,” he said. “If it is a difficult one, they can spend more time on it until the concept is mastered, something that may not happen in a traditional classroom where the faculty member may move ahead quickly, not realizing that the student is falling behind.”

Another method universities are using to keep students on track is the use of data analytics. At Purdue University, an online program called Signals employs an algorithm to spot struggling students and offer guidance and assistance.

“Academic analytics can help shape the future of higher education, just as evolving technology will enable new approaches to teaching and learning,” Kimberly Arnold, educational assessment specialist for Purdue’s Teaching and Learning Technologies group, said.

The program, which has been in use at Purdue for six years, gathers information from 20 data points within the university’s learning management systems to offer a clear picture into how a student is adjusting to a college education.

Purdue students enrolled in at least two courses that used the Signals program graduated within six years at a 21.5 percent rate higher than students who didn’t take classes that used Signals, according to statistics released by the university.

The difference in the nature of—and best practices for—these different groups of students confounds direct comparisons, the authors of the Babson survey said.

“If students are more likely to drop out of an online course because of work or family commitments,” they wrote, “does that reflect on the nature of the course, or the nature of the student?”

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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