The higher education sector is experiencing a significant period of change. Universities have been steadily increasing online learning options to provide greater flexibility for students.

Unfortunately, online classes continue to experience retention issues, which universities need to address.

One reason is clear; when studying online, students are physically disconnected from their peers, staff and the campus, resulting in feelings of isolation and a lack of support.

Increase in online learning

Advancement in technology is facilitating a significant increase in online learning.

Technology breaks down the geographic restrictions that once existed, allowing students to take courses from colleges in other states, or even other countries.

The student demographic has shifted from the prototypical recent High School graduate to mature-age learners looking to advance their career

The student demographic has also shifted from the prototypical recent High School graduate to mature-age learners looking to advance their career.

When asked about the most important reasons for choosing online classes, students indicated that they selected online courses based on considerations such as convenience, flexibility, opportunity to fuse their current lifestyles to their desire to study, availability of programs, and affordability (Shay & Rees, 2004).

29.7 percent of students at U.S. universities now take at least one distance education course (a total of 6,022,105 students) (source). Approximately half of those students are studying entirely online.

Online enrollments are therefore being driven by:

  • Rising number of students seeking flexible degrees, often wanting to balance study with part-time or full-time work
  • Students enrolled in on-campus programs increasingly choosing hybrid to fully online courses throughout their enrollment

Retention rates

 Without social connectedness, students are prone to feeling isolated
Without social connectedness, students are prone to feeling isolated

It can be difficult to pinpoint exact retention figures, particularly as the methods for calculation vary widely. Having said that, here are some interesting figures:

The causes of poor retention

To tackle the problem universities must understand the leading reasons students drop out.

Students often misunderstand the difficulty of online courses.
They think it’s easier than having to attend campus. Generally speaking, the reverse is true, online courses actually require significantly more discipline.

Staying motivated is a challenge. The convenience of never having to be on campus can encourage poor study habits, like the increased temptation to procrastinate.

Lack of support. It’s easy for universities to overlook online students in favor of on-campus students. It is challenging for staff and faculty not to fall into the trap of online cohorts being ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

Complex digital ecosystems. Unfortunately, most universities are stuck using archaic systems that were never developed to cater for online students. They are clunky, difficult to use and fail to create an environment of social engagement.

Lack of community and connection with peers. Particularly in the case of online learners, self-determination theory prescribes the need for a sense of inclusion or affiliation with others. (Chen and Jang, 2010). Before online education, many students developed strong relationships with their peers, resulting in a sharing of content, learning, and ideas. Without this social connectedness, students are prone to feeling isolated.

The cost of poor retention

Poor retention rates are expensive for students, faculty, and institutions.

In a study published in 2013, the 1,669 colleges and universities studied collectively lost revenue due to attrition in an amount close to $16.5 billion ($16,451,945,426) with the average school losing $9,910,811.

Publicly assisted colleges and universities averaged a $13,267,214 loss from attrition. The average private college or university lost revenue of $8,331,593, and for-profit schools lost an average of $7,921,228 (source).

Taking online seriously

Online learning and student retention require an institutional commitment, including innovative approaches to create student community, support, and engagement.

Online courses require more effort by staff and academics than traditionally needed.

Dr. Cathy Stone investigated the effectiveness of practices, supports and retention strategies in online learning at Australian universities. She discovered that staff who teach online units didn’t feel adequately supported by the university.

“There was often a sense of frustration among participants that their institution didn’t take online learning seriously, it was seen as an add-on, and that they didn’t get sufficient support as a lecturer delivering these programs,” she said.

Given on-campus students also access much of their content online under the blended learning approach, Dr. Stone argued that universities should adopt an “online first” attitude to the creation and delivery of all learning materials and content. “That requires ongoing and deliberate consideration of how we present and deliver material online in a way that it is engaging and meets learning outcomes,” she said.

Strategies to increase retention

Create connection and build community

When students feel disconnected and isolated, their chances of success are slim. There are many ways to build community online, including purpose-built technologies. Creating a support network around each student does take effort and persistence, but the potential benefit is immense.

Communicate personalized information

Frequent and personalized communication helps students to feel connected to staff and the university. The key is to avoid inundating students with irrelevant information. Keep it relevant, frequent and personal.

Centralise and prioritize

Universities must approach online learning as “core business” rather than an aside, by adopting an institution-wide approach to standards, staffing, and resourcing.

Use data effectively

Getting the fundamentals correct first is essential, but once achieved, learning analytics and other technologies can be used to understand the characteristics and progress of online students better.

Create an early intervention strategy

As soon as a student displays signs of wanting to drop out, the university should act as swiftly as possible to retain them. This can happen in the form of automatic emails to relevant staff when a student persistently fails to attend class or hand in work, or if they are using keywords in online systems (e.g. “under pressure” or “dropping out”).

Promote support services

Students need to be aware that the university has support services that they can access whenever they need them. Support staff should proactively provide information in creative and fun ways, as students are often hesitant to ask for help.

Invest in the digital campus

The digital campus is now arguably more important than the physical campus, so a significant investment needs to be made on an ongoing basis. Purchasing the best technologies available in the marketplace is the first step.