By Jim Shimabukuro
Stefanie Panke, in the discussion (8.16.11) on her article, “Open Learning at P2PU: An Interview with Jessica Ledbetter” (8.11.11), asks critical questions re performance in open online classes: Why do people drop out or hang in? How does this affect class culture or the facilitators?
I’m not sure what the answers are for the first question, but I’m certain that most who have taught or learned online have an opinion. My guess is that “easy access” is a root cause. It takes little effort to register for an online class, it’s free, and anonymity is an option. Thus when a door is purposely left wide open, many will enter, and this will include those who are merely curious, marginally interested, or lack the necessary time, temperament, skills, or knowledge to succeed.
The paradox is that “easy access” is also the root cause for popularity, i.e., for the same reasons that many will drop out, many will register. Thus we have a case of you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
Is this good or bad?
I think it’s good. I like the fact that many are able to check out and try on a class before deciding whether they want to buy into it. This is a natural filtering process, and those who remain are genuinely interested, qualified, and committed.
An underlying problem, though, may be depth of participation. I believe commitment to sticking it out and active participation may be mutually exclusive. Some who decide to stay and complete the class may remain only marginally active in discussions and other activities. They’ll meet all the requirements for the class, but they’ll do so at a bare minimum. However, this observation is not limited to open online classes. This is true for “closed” classes as well, both online and onground.
We could improve our retention figures by posting information about the class that will head off those who may not be ready for it. The information could take the form of a brief course description that details instructional approach, estimated time requirements, required skills and knowledge, and participation expectations. The list should be kept deliberately short and simple, and it should probably fit onto a single web screen. However, retention may be going the way of seat-time as a key variable for measuring the success of a class.
How does this affect class culture or the facilitators? My guess is that, on the one hand, it does, but on the other, it shouldn’t.
Some students may feel abandoned and begin questioning the value of the class. They wonder why so many are leaving the ship. Is it sinking? Some facilitators may begin to question themselves. Are they doing something wrong? What are they doing – or not doing – that’s driving so many students from the class?
The bottom line is that there may be nothing wrong – with the class, the performance of the facilitator, or the students who are abandoning ship. This ebb and flow of participants may just be a natural rhythm for online classes, something to be expected rather than feared.
The real danger is that perfectly good curricula and pedagogy might be abandoned or condemned on the basis of a natural process that may have nothing to do with their quality. Thus, raw retention figures, alone, may not be the best indicators of quality or success for online venues.
If not, then what are the best measures? How do we weigh the success of an open online class? In the end, perhaps the best indicators are the outcomes produced by students who complete the class. Or one that Stefanie has mentioned in one of our discussions – the amount of interest (or “e-nterest,” if you will) it generates on the open web in the form of further discussions, references, or follow-up articles. But this is another topic and perhaps one that we’ll soon broach.
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