“We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain.” -Stephen Hawking
Two realities are converging in higher education in an unsettling way. First, college and universities are being increasingly confronted by the changing needs of the post-traditional student, causing more institutions to incorporate a variety of online offerings. Second, staggering drop-out rates continue to plague the higher education institution, as colleges and universities still lose around 40 percent of undergraduate students to attrition before those students can graduate.
These two truths collide in the statistic that “Online courses have a 10 percent to 20 percent higher failed retention rate than traditional classroom environments, [and] 40 percent to 80 percent of online students drop out of online classes.” Thus, a second retention dilemma arises.
Online student retention has become an emerging area of focus in higher ed, and discussions of this topic largely tend to steer toward the discussion of the makeup of the online student body. Many online students now fit the profile for the post-traditional student, a group largely characterized by their older age and increased professional and familial obligations. Similarly, there is a particular unwillingness to assign blame to the online modality itself for the lower retention rates it yields. Yet, something distinct to the online modality mustn’t be swept under the rug when it comes to assessing student retention: distractions.
It is scarcely news that the online format leaves a number of students vulnerable to a larger number of distractions than they would otherwise experience in the classroom. When over 3,600 high academic performers self-identified as struggling in their online courses and programs, 65 percent of these students cited family/personal obligations as the #1 barrier to success, according to a 2015 Eduventures report. Yet, while all online students are likely subject to a number of distractors, some are able to make it through and pass their courses while others are not.
Distractions and the Brain
To answer the question of why students are able or unable to persist in online courses, and who the most vulnerable students are, let us first acknowledge the ultimate driver of student behavior and learning: the brain.