by Martha Mealy, Director of Instructional Design
Dropout rates in online courses have always been a topic of much concern and research in the online learning community. Losing 40-50% of the initially enrolled students by the end of the course is not uncommon. At University of Wisconsin Learning Innovations (UWLI), we struggle continually with the challenge of understanding why some courses fare worse than others in retaining students.
For the past 4 years, we have had the good fortune of working with the Collaborative Nursing Program, a well-known and successful collaborative distance education program consisting of five UW nursing courses (Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Eau Claire and Green Bay) that offers a BSN degree to students across Wisconsin and nearby states. Of the academic programs UWLI has participated in, this program has sustained what I consider to be a low rate of dropouts (between 15% and 20%) across its 5 online courses over the 3 years they have been offered. I would like to share with you are some of the reasons I believe these courses are so successful in retaining students.
First, the fact that this program grew out of a faculty-based initiative is a very important characteristic of the program that I believe contributes to its successfulness. A group of nursing faculty from all five participating campuses was largely responsible for the program conceptualization and implementation. As a consequence, their commitment to its success runs very deep and is evident in the time and energy I have seen the faculty invest in course design and course facilitation.
Second, a planning group for this program spent a great deal of effort identifying the audience for the program and their specific need. Market research was done in preparation for applying for funding. From this research, a clearly defined audience emerged Ð a critical mass of practicing nurses across Wisconsin and nearby states interested in earning a BSN. For a variety of reasons, these people were unable to come to one of the five UW System campuses offering the degrees. Initially the distance learning technologies that the faculty used were extended telephone networks, compressed video and audiographics. These technologies were well received by the intended audience, but they still presented obstacles for some participants in that they required that the participants come together at the same time for class. Also, attending a videoconference required participants to travel to a suitably equipped site. For this reason, some of the faculty explored using the emerging asynchronous instructional courseware products. This demonstrates another important characteristic: the willingness of the faculty to continue to explore new instructional technologies and techniques as needed for better serving the audience.
The online courses in particular also owe their successfulness to the fact that the faculty had previous experience in other distance learning technologies and so were well aware of the challenges that participants faced taking courses at a distance. They also had experience with types of activities that worked and those that didn't work with this audience. They designed and implemented a plan for identifying and incorporating workplace mentors for on-site instructional support for each of the program participants. Most importantly, the faculty understands how to engage the participants to create a learning community. The faculties acquired experience and knowledge base made for exciting working relationships for me as an instructional designer.
Another important variable is student support. A small group of campus-based advisors and program administration staff provide excellent personal services for this program and its participants. This level of support helps students feel known and motivated to finish by a larger supporting framework.
I think every instructional designer should have the good fortune to work with such a creative and well-planned group of faculty and program administrators. Our online courses would be much more successful as a result.
Distance Education Clearinghouse
Instructional Design at Instructional Communications Systems
Training for Videconferencing
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Last Updated: January 2006