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Online Student Success and Retention Rates Reveal the Quality of Online Education


Published originally by wcet LEARN. Maybe I’m just getting cranky, but I’m increasingly irritated by attacks on online learning, especially those based on badly designed research, small sample sizes, or those using data from un-cited studies.  “Why Are So Many Students Still Failing Online?” was the provocative headline of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Boy reading newspaper | Online student success | Course retention rates

Now to be fair, the article itself, aside from postulating that the only reason that institutions offer online courses is that they are the “proverbial cash cow,” was not completely unreasonable.  Although the author is clearly not a fan of online learning, most of us would at least agree with his point that learning online requires certain skills.  But why the Chronicle devoted an entire article to something we have known for years while highlighting his solution of some sort of pre-test for students before enrolling, is beyond me. This isn’t news. What rankles me most is that those of us who work in the world of online learning, have been examining and implementing new ideas promoting student success for years, including assessments and orientations to ensure that students are aware of and helped to attain the skills they need to be successful.  I’m baffled as to why our efforts still seem to be a secret to both the public and the major higher education media.

In 2000, when I first started at the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium (CTDLC), we were working with our member institutions to help them improve the quality of their online courses and programs through course development funding, instructional design consultation, quantitative and qualitative research on course completion and faculty roles, studies of student readiness, the development of our collaborative eTutoring program, and the list goes on.  And in Connecticut, where “distance” is a strange concept in what, despite what its residents think, is actually a small state, we were behind many of you at tackling these issues.

There are long standing national efforts such as Quality Matters with its focus on best practices in online course design and pedagogy.  An entire business community has also developed commercial as well as open source solutions to many of the issues we, as a community of online practitioners, have identified as impacting student learning and success online. And we don’t do this in a vacuum. We have sought out organizations like WCET.  Even those of us from the east found that despite the “Western” (which was, wasn’t, and now sort of is) in its name, WCET’s active CIG’s, listservs, and annual conference belie the notion that institutions and administrators have nothing but revenue on their minds.

The responses to the recent WCET listserv discussion on improving online course retention provided evidence of institutional commitment to understanding and improving online programs and how they serve students.  Some reported 85%  In the responses, an Athabasca University study reported having “85% of courses started by undergraduate students were successfully completed,” the North Dakota University System Online reported an 85% completion rate, and research on institutions with high completion rates was cited.  Others reported progress in closing the retention gap between online and face-to-face courses.

Most institutions with significant online programs have clearly identified strategies to monitor and improve quality.  And we keep pushing ourselves and others to get better at this.  WCET’s recent grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to use highly sophisticated statistical methods aggregating large institutional data sets is a significant step in our continual efforts to improve the persistence of students online. So why is it that the media continue to highlight these stories?  Is it just that the negative is more provocative?  Why is it that even within the academy, we are often all painted with the same brush used for fly-by-night online diploma mills?  Why am I still being asked to visit institutions to convince faculty that online education can and does help students achieve real learning objectives?  Does anyone seriously believe that the 5.9 million students taking an online course in 2009 (an annual increase of 21%) (2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning) is because all these students are choosing or fooled into enrolling in substandard courses?  How do we get better at ensuring that our commitment to quality and innovation are the norm?  Do we need better large scale research studies to help us demonstrate the efficacy of online programs? (Although the cranky me wants to respond with where’s the large scale research demonstrating the efficacy of lecture courses?) I don’t mean these as rhetorical questions.

At the last WCET Steering Committee meeting, we began this discussion.  Now I’d like to ask all of WCET’s members and all of you reading this blog for your thoughts. Through comments to this blog, let us know about your institution’s commitment to student success. It’s time we began to assert and better publicize the efficacy of our work.



About the Author: Diane Goldsmith recently retired as the Executive Director of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium but continues to work on the Adult Success Center project building innovative strategies in community colleges for working adults and displaced workers. A long-time contributor to WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) activities, Diane is the current WCET Steering Committee Chair and serves on the WCET Executive Council.