Sunday, February 5, 2012

Boosting retention in online courses

Retention is an issue in online courses.  Sometimes, it's a huge problem.  Why is that and how can we fix it?

Yikes, that's too big a question for me . . . and even if I could answer it, it'd take more than a blog post to do it!

But you know me! As a former lion tamer, there isn't much I'm not willing to tackle, eh?

I think that dropping out of online courses is due mostly to three factors:
  1. Students, even the young tech-savvy ones, are just not prepared for the very different learning environment of an online course.  They find it difficult to manage their time properly and they find it hard to navigate their online courses.  Sometimes, they need more computer skills.
  2. Sometimes online courses are not designed well and that frustrates (or bores) students . . . so they leave the course before it's over.
  3. Often, students just forget. Then they're too far behind to catch up . . . and they have no choice but to drop the course.
I'll leave the preparation of students and good course design issues to another time . . . or, more likely, a series of later blog posts.  For now, I'll focus on the easiest problem to fix.  And it may be the solution that has the biggest impact on retention in your online course!

It's number 3 in my list: tackling the issue of students forgetting about their online course. 

I see this all the time in my online courses.  I even see it happening in the online part of my web-enhanced courses.  This makes sense, right?  If you have to be in a face-to-face class at a particular time in a particular place, we've all learned coping strategies that get us there.  But in an online course, you don't usually have a particular time or place to access your course . . . and therefore it can easily slip through the cracks of the self-management style we've developed over a lifetime.

The thing is, this is easy to fix.  All I have to do is make sure I watch for non-participation near the beginning of the course, then follow up with the laggers.

"Oh, I forgot about that online class!"
I know, I know.  We've all got that little voice inside us saying . . . I'm not teaching 2nd-graders, these are adults . . . I shouldn't have to go find them and tell them it's time for school.

Yeah, I know . . . and I agree.  However, I also want to improve retention in my online classes.  So if I can set aside the part of me that hates having to be a truant officer for folks old enough to be responsible on their own, I can greatly improve the success rate in my courses.

I've tried this and it works.  And it's not as hard as that little voice tells me it's gong to be.  Here's how I do it:
  1. I watch the online activity in my course closely, especially during the first week or so. 
  2. As soon as I see any lagging, I jump on it immediately. Lagging is failure to login, failure to get started on activities, or skipping activities.
  3. I use multiple media to contact them immediately.  I've been known to use these methods (or a combination of them):
    1. Email them.  From within the LMS system and using their "regular" email(s) of record.
    2. Text them.  Students sometimes have their mobile phones listed in the school system.
    3. Phone them. 
    4. Write a short note and mail it.
  4. When I contact them, I start with empathy. I let them know that it's perfectly understandable that they are having a hard time making it a practice to engage the online course. I tell them that this is common. Then I let them know that this must change if they expect to succeed in my course.  Then I finish by emphasizing that I'm contacting them because I care about their success.  I make sure they know that if they get confused, it's okay to ask for my help.  
Besides getting lagging students to get with the program and reduce the likelihood of dropping the course, this method improves overall student success by making positive and supportive contact with individual students. 

Despite that little voice in my head warning me otherwise, I've found that this method takes very little time or effort.  And I've found that it has had a dramatic effect on my retention rate.

Try it and let me know how it works for you!