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

Retention rates for online courses remains low, but many institutions are having success–here’s how

retention-rates-onlineAcademic leaders are notably more worried about retention rates in online courses now than they were a decade ago.

Forty-one percent of chief academic officers say they agree that retaining students is a greater problem for online courses than for face-to-face classes, a new report said. Only 28 percent of respondents felt this way about retention in 2009, and only 27 percent concurred in 2004.

The concerns about student retention were highlighted in a recent survey conducted by Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson, and the Sloan Consortium. The survey featured nearly 3,000 institutions responding to questions about online learning.

“Comparing the retention in online courses to those in face-to-face courses is not simple or easy,” the report’s authors wrote. “Online courses can attract students who might otherwise have not been able to attend traditional on-campus instruction because of work, family, or other obligations.”

Low retention rates have plagued online courses for years, but the popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has helped shine a brighter spotlight on the issue in recent months. It’s also helped to highlight the fundamental differences between the kinds of students taking, and failing, online courses and those who can typically be found sitting in a campus lecture hall.

(Next page: Are online courses really helping the demographic it wants to serve?)

In an interview with Fast Company late last year, Sebastian Thrun, CEO of MOOC company Udacity, said that struggling MOOC students were “from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

Unfortunately, Thrun’s description precisely matches that of many who take online courses, and who MOOC enthusiasts had hoped the free platforms would be reaching.

“The online students in so many cases are working full time with family obligations while most of the on-campus students are not employed full time and have those same obligations,” said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

When San Jose State University and Udacity partnered to offer for-credit MOOCs last year, as much as 75 percent of students failed some of the courses. More than 60 percent of the students were not enrolled in a degree program at the university.

Out of the matriculated San Jose State students taking the remedial math MOOC, every one of them had previously failed a remedial math class. More than three-quarters of students enrolled in the MOOCs were balancing school work with jobs, the university said.

And these demographics characterize many forms of online learning. While the majority of “traditional” students on college campuses are in their late teens and early twenties, those taking online courses tend be adult learners with families and jobs.

The average age of students at the online-only Western Governors University, for example, is 36. A 2012 survey of online courses, sponsored by the Learning House and Aslanian Market Research, found that the average entirely-online student is 33 years old and fully employed. Online students who are younger are often low-income, and take online courses owing to issues of affordability.

(Next page: Not all are institutions are seeing low retention rates)

But not all online institutions are struggling to replicate the success rate of face-to-face colleges and universities.

“Generally the results online are better than one might think,” Schroeder said. “At our campus, we find that on-campus and online students in programs with online majors average degree completion at nearly the same rate at six years after entry.”

A New America Foundation report, “Next Generation Universities,” released last year said there were a number of universities leveraging online learning to increase enrollments without sacrificing retention.

The University of Texas at Arlington is using online courses and academic partnerships to enroll more than 5,000 nursing school students without, the report said, seeing a dip in course completion. Nearly 30 percent of Arlington’s growing student body is enrolled solely online.

Meanwhile, the University of Central Florida has used online technologies to help with a growing demand for its courses. About 2,700 of the university’s students are enrolled simultaneously in an online, mixed-mode, or face-to-face class during a semester.

Thirty-two percent of courses there are now online, the report said. If the courses were in a physical location, they would require five classroom buildings.

(Next page: How you can improve retention rates)

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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