online learners

#4: 5 important revelations from first year online learners

New research delves into the personal experiences of first year online learners in an effort to understand low retention rates.

[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on January 5th of this year, was our #4 most popular story of the year. The countdown continues tomorrow with #3, so be sure to check back!]

Despite a record number of students taking online higher education courses, many of those entering for the first time often have incorrect preconceived notions of online learning’s extreme flexibility—and it’s this notion that may lead to high dropout rates.

This is one of the findings of a new research report that aims to explore the dearth in research about what actually happens to first year distance students once they have enrolled in higher education courses.

Using video diaries of 20 first-time, fully-online learning students from one specific university, data was collected by researchers—Mark Brown, director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) at Dublin City University; Helen Hughes, doctor of Philosophy student at University of Bristol; Mike Keppell, professor and executive director of the Australian Digital Futures Institute (ADFI) at the University of Southern Queensland; Natasha Hard, project manager and Research Assistant with the ADFI; and Liz Smith, director of Academic Success: Distance Success Leader in the Office for Students at Charles Sturt University—on their “lived experiences.” Over 22 hours of video data was transcribed and thematically analyzed.

The researchers say the video diaries help reveal the “soft factors” that directly influence distance students’ study and motivation; specifically, family circumstances and part- or full-time employment.

According to multiple cited research reports, “distance learners are more likely to study under conditions that are far less common among first year campus-based undergraduates,” write the researchers. Also, “…an Australian University Survey of Student Engagement [AUSSE] found that, in Australia and New Zealand, more first year students withdraw from study than returning students.”

Based on previous research, one theory as to why more first-time distance learning students drop out is because services and interventions known to successfully support the engagement of distance learners are often applied in a seemingly ad-hoc manner, described by one researcher as a “goulash approach” to promoting distance learner retention.

In an effort to contribute to the enhancement of online learning support services and resources available for first-time online learners, researchers of the report aimed to develop a conceptual framework for identifying the most effective use of various intervention tools, supports and resources at early stages of the study lifecycle, as well as produce a set of overarching principles to help institutions enhance distance learner engagement and success.

And though the data was collected from only 20 representative students over one semester and 12 students for both semesters, the findings from the report may reveal critical insights:

1.False preconceived notions often lead to unrealistic study choices: According to the report, from the outset of the semester, students had relatively little concept of what it is actually like to study online. Because of this, students do not always make realistic study choices in light of their personal circumstances (family obligations and dependents, employment, financial issues and personal recreation). “Students commonly perceive that distance study will not only be flexibly scheduled around commitments, but also ‘condensable’ into the hours they have available,” note the researchers. As early as the orientation period, the perceived flexibility and self-paced nature of online learning creates a false sense of security, says the report, that seemed to invite some students to remain syllabus-bound, ignore non-essential tasks and—in the worst scenarios—to disengage and withdraw from courses.

(Next page: Online learners insights 2-5)

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