Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Seven Simple Ways To Lower Attrition Rates in Online Courses.

Someone is finally saying in print what those of us who teach online for community colleges have known for some time.

Attrition rates for online courses are high--very high.

In our culture's frenzied love affair with all things digital and mediated--some things really are pleasant to do while at home on the couch in our PJ's--it is worth noting that face-to-face presence exerts a kind of social pressure.
  • When a student shows up to class, he may well feel (quite rightly) that he should kind of do the homework, as the professor might call on him. Call it fear. Call it a stressor. But it's real.
Thus the simple fact of needing to show up at a given place and time, together with the fear of embarrassment, produce a beneficial effect: a student does some work.

Absent this pressure, it's quite easy to forget about the class entirely.

Okay: admittedly some face-to-face students are quite capable of forgetting about those classes entirely, too. But that's another story.

Those of us who teach online--as I have for the last five years--develop strategies, and institutions do the same. Here are seven simple ways to lower the attrition rates in online courses.

  1. Enroll all DL students in an orientation towards the learning management system--and towards DL itself.
  2. The first week of class, orient students clearly towards tasks and deadlines.
  3. The instructor should contact students individually during the first two weeks of the course to make them feel involved and recognized. Say something individual to each student to make a connection and to show you recognize her experiences and contributions. "Mary--Just a quick note to say how much I enjoyed reading your Discussion post. I haven't had that kind of experience, and I know your peers will get a lot out of your participation in this class. Thanks for sharing your thoughts."
  4. Re-orient students each week with motivating, substantive emails about the week's course content. "Have you ever wished on a falling star? What causes falling stars? This week you'll learn where falling stars come from...."
  5. Advise students quickly and honestly about progress. Be firm and clear without being mean or negative.
  6. In formative assessment, give specific Next Steps students can take to improve. "The sentences you write are on the topic. But I would like next time for you to group them together in one paragraph: so don't hit 'Return' after every sentence."
  7. Direct at-risk students towards resources which are also available at a distance. "My friend Mona Simpson in the Learning Center looks at student drafts Tuesday's and Thursday's--in person or by email. Why don't you drop by? She's very nice. Ask her about the Celtics."

In short: englobe the student in a social network, help her know you care; make sure she knows what the next steps are--and that they are do-able.

--Edward R. O'Neill


Friday, July 8, 2011

Why Not Just Make a Web Site?

A very smart manager of web services asked me this recently, and I thought this was a great question.

The question can also be flipped: many web sites could just as well be ebooks--they are updated so infrequently.

So indeed, what is the profile of a web site vs. an ebook? It would nice for those of us who work with learning technology to know--so that we can help users decide what kind of content should go on what platform. So this was my attempt at a rough-and-ready set of distinctions.
A web site can:
  • be dynamic (responding to users), frequently changing, regularly updated;
  • be a hosted conversation, not a fixed monologue or dialogue: it's like a play where the audience talks back;
  • collect data about users to track them over time--for their benefit or the site's benefit;
  • immediately connect to other resources via hyperlinks so that the site is seamlessly embedded within the internet as a whole;
  • be accessed sequentially over a long period, but brief and intermittent random access, skimming, searching and hit-and-run browsing are often assumed.
An ebook:
  • takes a fixed form which can be stable for weeks or months or more;
  • does not include an on-going conversation--that takes place elsewhere;
  • does not track user behavior (though some reader programs sync across devices for user convenience);
  • contains within itself a tightly-bound group of coherent elements and may link more loosely to other resources (through footnotes, hyperlinks and other references);
  • is a standalone resource that can be used, read and enjoyed by itself, often over a long duration, often sequentially.
In short: a web site is a snack or a buffet, where an ebook is a meal or several meals.
  • A web site is potentially casual, sampled in short visits, potentially over time, in a very non-linear fashion, and it may be a form of social interaction.
  • An ebook has a longer duration, may be more sequential, and it is a solitary 'conversation' between an author and a reader.
The ebook characteristics in italics are traditional book characteristics. In the era of the web site, we are apt to think of all collections of information as very loosely related. Everything's connected to everything--right? It's all just hypertext.

But in the era of hypertext, the success of the ebook should remind us of a few things--four, really.
  1. That some pieces of information are more tightly bound to each other.
  2. That kind of tight binding or coherence is what we expect of an author or content creator.
  3. That not everyone is connected to the web at every moment--nor wants to be nor should be expected to be.
  4. And that social as we are, we still enjoy solitary, reflective activities--as we have since Gutenberg's invention gave a reasonable price to solitary reading for enlightenment or pleasure.

--E. R. O'Neill