The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated February 11, 2000

As Distance Education Comes of Age, the Challenge Is Keeping the Students

Colleges are using online courses to raise enrollment, but retaining it is another matter

By SARAH CARR
Tyler, Tex.

As a student at Tyler Junior College and an employee of its computer-help desk, Jeff K. Powers has seen firsthand what can make distance-education courses go awry.

After successfully completing two distance courses, Mr. Powers dropped an online astronomy class in mid-semester. The instructor was teaching online for the first time, and had not set up the course work and laboratories properly. The laboratory experiments were based on calculations that could not be performed easily on a computer, and there was little guidance beyond the textbook.

Several students dropped the course. "It wasn't worth the headache," Mr. Powers says. "The instructor wasn't a bad teacher. He just did not have the experience with online courses."

Mr. Powers also has seen experienced and successful online instructors lose large numbers of students for reasons beyond their control. "I think the type of student who takes an online class is one that is trying really hard, but sometimes gets in over his head," he says. He knows this from personal experience, he says -- he juggles a full-time job at the help desk, his classes, and helping to care for his young child.

Whether the students who leave distance education do so because of busy schedules or because their teachers are inexperienced in online teaching is becoming a critical question in higher education. As more colleges use distance courses to attract new students, administrators are trying to figure out how to keep those students enrolled.

If distance learning can be used to improve completion rates in courses and academic programs, many more educators may embrace it. But the jury is still out.

No national statistics exist yet about how many students complete distance programs or courses, but anecdotal evidence and studies by individual institutions suggest that course-completion and program-retention rates are generally lower in distance-education courses than in their face-to-face counterparts.

Some administrators and faculty members attribute the lower rates in distance-education courses to demographics, saying that distance-education students are often older, and thus busier, than traditional college students. However, others in academe blame the nature of distance education, arguing that online and television courses will never be able to supply the personal interaction that some students crave.

But gifted instructors can find ways to work around these problems, according to several distance-education professors. Establishing some form of personal contact with students and letting them know what is required in a distance course are both essential. Successful instructors frequently give their often overloaded students some flexibility in assignments and test-taking. Instructors are also optimistic that, as they grow more comfortable teaching online and technologies become more sophisticated, their retention rates will improve.

Although there is significant variation among institutions -- with some reporting course-completion rates of more than 80 percent and others finding that fewer than 50 percent of distance-education students finish their courses -- several administrators concur that course-completion rates are often 10 to 20 percentage points higher in traditional courses than in distance offerings.

Distance-education administrators caution that it is misleading to compare too closely the statistics of different institutions, since they measure retention rates differently. Some institutions, for instance, don't include in their dropout calculations those students who leave classes during "drop/add" periods at the beginning of a semester, while others do.

Many administrators say that it is still too early to compile statistics on the retention of students in degree programs offered through distance technologies. Instead, they focus on individual course-completion rates.

Pamela Quinn, the assistant chancellor at the Dallas County Community College District's R. Jan LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications, says studies at the LeCroy center have shown an 11 to 15 percentage-point difference between course-completion rates in the district's on-campus courses and those in its distance-education courses. She says that statistic has stayed fairly consistent throughout the 18 years that the district schools have offered distance courses. More than 10,000 students take courses each year through the LeCroy center, which is the distance-education arm of the seven institutions in the community-college district, and has offered a growing number of online courses for the past few semesters.

Here at Tyler, one of Texas' largest community colleges, the course-completion rate for the 35 Internet courses offered last fall was 58 percent, while for traditional courses the rate was 71 percent.

In other states, colleges report similar numbers. Chuck Dziuban, the director of the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Central Florida, reports that in fall 1998 the withdrawal rate was 9 percent from the university's Web-based courses, and 5 percent from face-to-face courses in the same subjects. The university is offering 47 Web-based courses this spring.

Kathy McGuire, the director of distance learning at the University of California at Los Angeles, says during the first few quarters that U.C.L.A. offered online courses, the course-completion rate was generally between 50 and 60 percent. For the past eight quarters, though, the university boasts an online-course-completion rate of 87 percent. Approximately 1,300 students now take online courses through U.C.L.A. each semester.

Nearly every distance-education instructor and student has a different explanation for the higher dropout rate, but the explanations generally fall into two camps: Some believe students leave distance courses for essentially the same reasons they drop out of traditional courses, but that distance-education students, who are often older, have more obligations and simply must drop more frequently.

Others say that fundamental differences between the two modes of instruction explain the statistics. "Distance-education students tend to leave us because they are very busy, their lives are crammed full of things, and suddenly they find themselves in a situation of having to rethink their priorities," says Jacquelyn B. Tulloch, the executive dean of distance education and college services at the LeCroy center. "Very often, for better or for worse, education is the easiest thing to let go of."

Professors teaching online and video courses say they lose students to marriages, job changes, pregnancies, and other personal and professional transitions.

Byron Howell, a chemistry instructor at Tyler, says that one of his students had to drop his online chemistry course after he lost possession of his computer in a divorce settlement. "The most common thing we see, though, are job changes," Mr. Howell adds.

Carie Cox-Schmitt, a student at North Lake College, in Irving, Tex., had to drop two distance-education courses when she and her husband decided to move to a different house. Ms. Schmitt started taking courses at North Lake in 1990, and continues to work toward her degree while raising three children who are all under the age of 7. She also runs a day-care center for six preschoolers in her home.

Ms. Schmitt was surprised and disappointed when she had to drop the two courses unexpectedly last spring. "We were trying to sell our house in March -- right in the middle of the semester," she says. "And I probably could have completed it if I had had a really reliable baby sitter, but I was out of luck there."

Over all, Ms. Schmitt says, the distance-education courses she has taken have been as challenging and worthwhile as the face-to-face courses she has taken at Baylor University.

But Anna M. Spalding, a student who has taken distance courses from several Texas institutions, suggests that immutable differences between distance and traditional learning account for the lower retention rates.

"The biggest challenge in taking these courses is the fact that you don't have direct contact on a regular basis with your instructor," she says. "You have to be the type of person who is comfortable and confident in your work, because the feedback is not immediate."

Ms. Spalding, who has completed three-quarters of her college courses through distance-education programs, says she was in one online computer-science class that 75 percent of the students dropped. Contrary to those who say older students are more likely to drop courses, Ms. Spalding says she has observed that students in their teens and 20's are more at risk, while older students with better-defined career goals have an easier time dealing with the independent nature of the work.

At one point when she was a student, Ms. Spalding's job as a customer-service representative kept her on the road nearly 85 percent of the time, but she didn't drop any courses. "I really think that distance education is a great opportunity for someone who has either a tough professional schedule or a tough personal schedule to continue their education," she says.

Ken Alfers, a history professor at Mountain View College, in Dallas, agrees that fundamental differences between distance education and traditional-classroom learning may cause more students to drop out. "I think that sometimes students just get lost out there in cyberspace, where there isn't the attention on them," he says. "I don't know whose fault that is. It could be the students' or it could be the professors', but the point is that it happens."

Nevertheless, David M. Bailey, the director of institutional research at Tyler, says he believes colleges are moving toward a point where students may be matched with a particular delivery medium based on their learning styles and on their lives.

Mr. Bailey, along with several other college administrators and professors, is confident that the rise in the number of online courses and the increasing sophistication of technology will ultimately improve retention in distance education. The numbers at Tyler, however, seem to suggest otherwise: Last fall the completion rate in the college's video-based distance-education courses was 77 percent, as opposed to 58 percent in the Internet-based courses.

Mr. Bailey thinks he has an explanation. "What is happening is that we are bringing in new faculty to teach online, and the more experience an instructor has, the better," he says. "When we stop bringing in more first-timers, the rates will start to improve."

He adds that students will eventually become "attuned to the way we do business on the Internet," and will become more self-selecting.

Not all institutions are struggling as students and professors go online for the first time, though. Michele Payne, the director of learning initiatives at Kirkwood Community College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says completion rates have been universally higher in the college's Internet courses than in the older, television-based courses.

And some professors remain confident that more fully utilizing the Internet will help them improve retention. Emilio Ramos, dean of academic and administrative technology at the LeCroy center, teaches an introductory course about computers. He says when he switched to a more interactive Internet program that allowed him to hold regular chats and organize e-mail messages more efficiently, his course-completion rates jumped from 62 percent to 90 percent.

The improvement required a major investment of time on Mr. Ramos's part. "The key to having low attrition and successful completion in the online medium is the ability of instructors to keep the students engaged, and that requires quite a bit of effort from the instructor's point of view," he says.

Nancy Stout, the associate dean of distance education and college services at the LeCroy center, says she isn't surprised that institutional figures hold constant, whereas individual faculty members often see their own numbers go up. "Every time you add a new technology, you have a new learning curve you have to get over," she says. "It's just a fact of life."

The best distance-education instructors are climbing the curve by finding ways to focus attention on the learners, say professors.

They say that successful distance-education professors e-mail their students frequently and respond to e-mail messages promptly, hold regular office hours -- whether online or in person -- and develop personal touches to make contact with their students, such as posting photographs of themselves on course Web pages.

Mountain View's Mr. Alfers estimates that he has a course-completion rate of approximately 50 percent in his Internet-based history courses and 65 to 70 percent in his traditional courses. He says he tries to reach all his students individually by e-mail, and has set up a phone tree so that the students will get to know each other. "It's very easy to let the course go on by itself. You have to constantly remind yourself to make contact, and I know that sometimes I don't do the best that I can do," he says.

For Tyler's Mr. Howell, keeping tabs on his students and keeping them enrolled have become high priorities. When he first offered his online chemistry course last semester, the completion rate was only 49 percent. In his face-to-face courses, he says, he usually has a completion rate of 70 to 75 percent.

This semester, while he's trying out two more online courses, Mr. Howell is taking new steps to keep track of his students. Using a computer program called Archipelago, he is able to see when his students log on and off the course software and how much time they spend on each assignment. Mr. Howell has already pinpointed students he perceives as potential dropouts and e-mails them reminders when assignments are due.

"There was one student whom I e-mailed four times in the first week," he says. "He had never even downloaded the course icons. I really feel that in some ways I can do more than in a traditional classroom, because I can tell how much time each student spends on each assignment."

"Last semester," Mr. Howell adds, "those students who just weren't hacking it just weren't putting in the time."

Other professors take a different tack, trying before the semester even starts to scare away students who aren't going to make it. The professors say it is crucial, at the very least, to let students know how much time and computing skill is necessary to be a successful distance-education student.

Christopher Stewart, who teaches an Internet-based art-appreciation course for Tyler, tells prospective students during orientation that he doubts whether he could have done well in an online course when he was 18.

Elizabeth A. Buchanan, an assistant professor of library and information science at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, says she believes potential distance-education students should be asked before a course begins whether they can work independently and how computer literate they are. "Not everyone is going to be able to succeed in this new learning environment, and why should they?" says Ms. Buchanan. "You really need to weed people out, and I don't see universities doing that."

The notion of weeding people out to improve success rates scares at least one distance-education professor, however. Chere Campbell Gibson, chairwoman of the graduate program in continuing and vocational education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says students should be pushed to learn in as many different ways as possible, even if surveys predict that they may fail.

"I wonder what criterion you would use to decide who can and cannot take a certain kind of course," Ms. Gibson says. "To send students out into the world unprepared to teach and learn through online learning is a mistake."

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