Study: Online learning improves retention, graduation rates

Posted: April 23rd, 2018

A new study from Arizona State University suggests that online courses may be better equipped to help retain students and to keep them on the path to graduation, according to a report from Campus Technology.

The university examined digital learning trends and outcomes from two public universities, two community colleges and a community college system. It found that three out of four institutions that offered in-person and online courses had higher retention and graduation rates for students who at least enrolled in some digital learning classes.

At Houston Community College, for example, first-time freshman retention rates were at least nine points higher among students in exclusively online or blended courses. At the University of Central Florida, students who took between 40% and 60% of their courses online finished their degrees earlier than students who took no online classes. They completed their degrees in 3.9 years compared with 4.3 years for learners who only took in-person courses.

Retention and completion rates would seem to be higher among students in online learning courses because there are fewer metrics that could contribute to low performance in coursework. Accessing a class on an electronic device from home could potentially be easier than having to travel to campus, and the material is seemingly easier to digest at a comfortable pace instead of being restricted by specific class time and office hours with professors. This prospect was outlined in a 2016 study on why students enroll in online for-profit institutions.

But while these courses may prove to be easier to lead students to completion, demonstrated in the number of faculty members who are using flipped classroom structure, they may not necessarily translate into skill building, theoretical insight or technical comprehension. With all of the thought that goes into online course design and access, the elements of teaching and learning in most digital modules are not present, like hearing faculty and students express passion behind certain points of view, or being able to dig deeper into the course-related dialog and to apply it to real-world contexts.

In online courses, the goal is to meet the digital classroom posting requirement and to move on to the next lesson, a practice that officials at St. George's University revamped in redesigning their first massive online open course (MOOC).

These realities underscore the importance for online instructors to be engaging, almost overly so, in order to inspire students to high levels of interaction and dialog. This is particularly important for those classes that do not have video conferencing components, which is the closest substitute to the in-person experience that an online student can receive. These elements, in addition to meeting students’ learning needs and a desire to connect with campus culture, are essential to making this research about retention bear out across all kinds of institution types.

Source: Jarrett Carter