[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)

2.Engaging with support services must be encouraged: Because of students’ often incorrect concepts of the ease of online learning, the value of institutional support services that can help students calculate what is personally realistic during the path to enrollment is critical. However, researchers found that while some students are open to being engaged by these services, others are not. “A future challenge for distance providers is to not only design relevant services that can be made available at the point of need, but to dissuade learners from taking a ‘lone wolf’ approach…from the outset,” says the report.

3.Feelings of belonging help retention: Most students perform better and are more satisfied in their online learning experience if the institution cultivates positive working and social relations among learners, says the report. To build a stronger sense of belonging or relatedness to students part of online learning, the researchers recommend Thornberg’s four metaphors enabling engagement in online spaces: 1) Caves, where distance learners can find time to reflect and come in to contact with themselves; 2) Campfires, or formal environments where students have the opportunity to listen to stories from which they construct knowledge from those with expertise and wisdom; 3) Watering Holes, or informal environments where students gather at a central source to discuss information and create meaning with their peers; and 4) Mountain Tops, where students celebrate their findings and present their ideas to an audience.

4.Digital skills and fluency do matter: Though most students were comfortable after an initial technology orientation period with the online learning platform, some mature-aged, first-time distance learners reported unease at using the technology and often felt overwhelmed. This not only caused them to doubt online learning’s efficacy on their studies, but limited their engagement with faculty and peers. “A future challenge for distance education providers is to develop student’s academic capital and social confidence in the digital environment,” write the researchers.

5. Knowing when to place interventions is critical: Though the video diaries support previous research noting the importance of early interventions, the report notes evidence that a second and “significant ‘high-risk’ period of disengagement exists for first-time distance learners towards the latter part of the semester just before the final assignment was due. Although this second ‘at-risk’ period did not result in immediate withdrawl, it often meant that even highly motivated students began to question their ability to successfully complete their program of study,” highlight the researchers. “…those who demonstrate passive, surface approaches [to their online studies] from the outset are most at risk during the second ‘at-risk’ period that has been identified by this study. This finding raises questions about the optimum moments for institutions to intervene and support students in an effort to develop new habits of mind by evoking more active engagement.”

The report’s authors concluded that distance providers and prospective students alike need to work together to design what is achievable in a way that is not just a “crude calculation of hours available, predicated on the ill-informed assumption that distance learning is a ‘lone wolf’ experience offering more flexibility than on-campus learning.”

Instead, courses need to be designed to complement busy lives, and support services need to adequately help them survive beyond the first few weeks in an “environment that is most likely starkly different than that of a campus learner.”

For much more in-depth information, including profiles of each student and methodology, read the full report, “Stories from Students in their First Semester of Distance Learning.”

About the Author:

Meris Stansbury

Meris Stansbury is the Editorial Director for both eSchool News and eCampus News, and was formerly the Managing Editor of eCampus News. Before working at eSchool Media, Meris worked as an assistant editor for The World and I, an online curriculum publication. She graduated from Kenyon College in 2006 with a BA in English, and enjoys spending way too much time either reading or cooking.


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