The darn drop outs and lurkers

by P

No, I am not speaking of the P2PU management and advisory boards, although some of us have taken rather unconventional academic trajectories including dropping out altogether. But I am writing about a different type of dropping out that is of great concern to P2PU: the number of people that start but don’t complete online courses, including ours.

When we ran our pilot, many in the P2pU community including myself were shocked to see drop out rates above 50% in most courses. We had some courses where only very few people continued to the end. Our surprise was genuine, but maybe naiv (not a bad thing I would argue). It turns out that our completion rates were no worse (or better unfortunately) than those of online education in general.

I quote from Berge and Huang (who reference others)

Historically, the percentage of students who drop out of brick and mortar higher education has held constant at between 40-45% for the past 100 years (Tinto 1982). In the online learning context, dropout rates appear to be higher than for traditional courses. While there are no national statistics for completion rates of distance education students, dropout rates are believed by some to be 10 to 20 percentage points higher than for in-person learning (Carr 2000; Diaz 2002; Frankola 2001).

That means drop out rates between 50-65% are considered to be a reality in online education. Wow! (I haven’t done a comprehensive literature review, but some of the articles that are widely referenced are listed at the end of this post.)

I could try to make the argument that this is a success for P2pU – since our drop out rates are no worse, even though we do not offer any of the usual carrots (degrees) or sticks (fees) that keep people going usually. But unfortunately that would not be good enough. The P2PU learning model is based on a strong sense of community between peers – individuals who help each other to learn. Seeing peers drop out over time is terribly frustrating not only for the course organizer (I know, because I have spent a significant amount of time on instant messenger with course organizers who felt personally responsible and took each drop out very hard) but also for peer learners, who looser their peers.

The second argument I come across frequently when drop out rates come up, is that a high percentage of participants in online courses will only lurk and we shouldn’t worry about that. There is a whole book shelf of academic literature on learning by lurking and the invisible student. I am not arguing that lurkers are not learning anything, but in my personal experience and that of P2PU, it is not the lurkers that benefit most but the doers, the tinkerers and the creators – and that those are the people you will want to take a course with. It’s no fun to be in a room full of invisible students.

That’s why P2PU is aiming for low drop out and lurking rates. Very low ones. It’s always dangerous to nail your colors to the mast, but I would go so far to say that in the perfect P2PU course, less than 10% of participants drop out or don’t participante. (Please note that this is me speaking in my personal capacity – and not necessarily the opinion of the P2PU community!)

I think there are many aspects of online courses that can be improved to reduce drop out rates and increase participation, but two fundamental things that enable us to shift from more than 50% leaving to something much better:

  • Make it difficult (to join) – In our pilot phase (as well as the first round of courses we ran this year), it was too easy to sign-up for a course. As a result many people signed up because the courses “sounded interesting” without really asking themselves if they were ready to make the commitment necessary. By increasing the sign-up hurdle, we can help users think more carefully about joining a course. This hurdle should not be designed to test expertise or intellectual capacity, but motivation. If someone puts in a few hours of work to complete and submit their course sign-up form – they should be allowed to join.
  • Make it personal – The interaction between participants is crucial in creating a social bond that helps people keep going when their busy lives pull them in other directions. One participant in the pilot stated that she knew one of the other participants by name (and assumed the same was true in the other direction). She said she struggled to keep up with the work, but pulled through and completed because she didn’t want her colleague to think she was a quitter. By increasing personal interaction at the beginning of the course, the social ties between participants can be strengthened. Asking participants to upload photos of themselves helps with identification – and as we feel ourselves learning more about others, we assume they learn more about ourselves – and we start caring about their opinions.

Some research on drop out and non completion:

  • Berge, Z & Huang, Y (2004) A Model for Sustainable Student Retention: A Holistic Perspective on the Student Dropout Problem with Special Attention to e-Learning. DEOSNEWS, Volume 13 (5)
  • Carr, S. (2000, February 11). As distance education comes of age, the challenge is keeping the students. Chronicle of Higher Education, A39. (needs subscription)
  • Diaz, D.P. (2002, May/June). Online drop rates revisited. The Technology Source. (online version).
  • Frankola, K. (2001). Why online learners drop out. Workforce, 80, 53-58. (online version).
  • Tinto, V. (1982). Limits of theory and practice in student attrition. Journal of Higher Education, 53 (6): p.687-700.
  • Tyler-Smith, K. (2006). Early Attrition among First Time eLearners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. (online version).
  • List of articles on the topic at Learning Light.