Open Online Classes: Is Retention an Effective Measure of Success?

Jim ShimabukuroBy 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.

12 Responses

  1. Good post and good questions, Jim. I enrolled myself in the first MOOC course in 2008 and although I finished I didn’t participate a lot. Partly because I was a bit intimidated by all the academics talking about a theory I knew nothing about (connectivism and connected knowledge) and partly because it was pretty overwhelming just figuring out where to go in the course. That said, it was successful for me. Lots of people dropped out, but those who stayed in and participated to their level of comfort seemed to also deem it a success. Some commented on the number who ‘disappeared’, but it certainly didn’t stop the conversation.

    I took the course because of my commitment to life long learning (plus curiosity) and I did learn a lot and I shared the information with others. Some people took the course for credit so their defined learning outcomes were probably different than mine. My question would be, from whose perspective are we defining success? The beauty of open access is that people can take courses for personal reasons as well as academic reasons. I have to say that I probably learned more from other participants than I did from the instructors (could have been because of the sheer number of people engaged–it was sometimes hard to find the instructors comments).

  2. Jan, thanks for sharing this insider perspective. You ask a good question: “From whose perspective are we defining success?” I can imagine that one person’s success could be another’s failure, depending on whose agenda we’re inspecting. In the MOOC forums that I visited (as an outsider), I was impressed by the wide range of opinions on the course. In the end, it all seemed to come down to, as you say, individual expectations.

    Your comment, “I probably learned more from other participants than I did from the instructors,” is worth noting. Interestingly, this was actually the intent of the course so you were a successful student, at least from the perspective of the course designers.

    The hardest turn for educators to make is the one that places the emphasis on learning rather than teaching. We can easily grasp the concept, but applying it is a different story. When we focus on learning instead of teaching, we begin to think of what we can do in terms of setting up an environment that invites and demands learning. We then realize that the potential environment is infinitely greater than a single teacher.

    This realization gives us a whole new perspective, one that accepts the reality that our task is to ultimately help students learn how to create and manage their own learning environments. This is an exciting time to be a student. It’s as though each person in the universe were handed a little gadget that would give instant access to not only all the libraries and museums of the world but to all the people in the world, too.

    With so much to learn, we are all — regardless of age — assigned to the role of life-long learner. -Jim S

  3. I was having just this conversation this afternoon with a colleague. Her course in Research Methods is one of the first required courses in our online Master’s Program and she is experiencing about a 40% attrition rate. Is that bad? In some worlds, it would be awful. But we think of her course as a “gate keeper” for the program. Let folks try, but set a standard and require performance at an acceptable level. Some students really aren’t qualified; some really aren’t interested; some become passionately involved. Could I have known from applications and transcripts and recommendations which were which? Maybe, in a few cases. But there is much to be said positively about letting folks have a look, try on a subject, see what kind of learning in what kind of subjects suits them.

    I’m tempted to try an online course myself this semester. It’s being offered at Stanford–a free online course on artificial intelligence and 58,000 people from 175 countries have signed up for it–so far. I probably won’t join, since it requires more math than I can muster. But the idea intrigues me.

  4. Judith, much thanks for mentioning this free online course from Stanford! I feel so hopeful when I read something like this. I believe one of the ideals that motivates all of us who are championing technology in education is to bring the best possible education to everyone in the world — regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, sex, age, race, religion. To learn that top faculty at some of the best universities (e.g., Stanford, MIT) are actively working toward the same goals makes my day. I especially like this section from the article:

    “Dr. Widom said that having Stanford courses freely available could both assist and compete with other colleges and universities. A small college might not have the faculty members to offer a particular course, but could supplement its offerings with the Stanford lectures.

    “There has also been some discussion at Stanford about whether making the courses freely available would prove to be a threat to the university, which charges high fees for tuition. Dr. Thrun dismissed that idea.

    “‘I’m much more interested in bringing Stanford to the world,’ he said. ‘I see the developing world having colossal educational needs.'”

    Dr. Sebastian Thrun is my new hero!

  5. […] Open Online Classes: Is Retention an Effective Measure of Success? By Jim Shimabukuro Editor 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 perform… Source: […]

  6. […] Open Online Classes: Is Retention an Effective Measure of Success? By Jim Shimabukuro Editor 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… Source: […]

  7. ON LINE COURSES offer a different form of learning. In many ways they can be more learner centric and learner based than traditional classes. Many people have mentioned the influence of other students in such classes. In effect, they often learn more from their fellow students than they do from the instructor. To me this is a positive aspect of online courses and enriches the learning process. I do not worry about the drop out rate since I believe it is just a part of the system. In fact it may be a positive factor since the student may be floundering in the class.

    • Frank, I agree with your comment that students “often learn more from their fellow students than they do from the instructor. To me this is a positive aspect of online courses and enriches the learning process.”

      The teacher is a source of information, and each classmate is too. By the sheer weight of numbers, classmates represent a larger pool of knowledge. On the playground, on the streets, in the neighborhood, in the schoolyard, on the campus courtyard, online — people, not only students, learn from one another.

      To differentiate this peer learning from the learning that occurs in school and college classrooms, educators label it “informal,” but in reality, there’s no real difference between formal and informal learning. The process is the same, except for the fact that informal is driven by the student and based on her/his needs, interests, abilities, and knowledge. Furthermore, it takes place in almost any environment at any time and is not limited to the classroom.

      When we consider informal learning, concepts such as push and pull become irrelevant since they’re place-based and external to the student. That is, a person is either pushed to or pulled to a specific location or service. In informal learning, where the learner is self-motivated and self-directed, the movement is neither push nor pull since the “destination” or “goal” is student generated.

      This informal movement is, from the outside looking in, freewheeling, and the target or destination is different for everyone. The drive is from within, and the motivation is personal enjoyment, pleasure, fun — the way all learning ought to be.

      • NASA TV has recently asked a number of astronauts how they became interested in science and eventual space exploration. Amazingly many were inspired by using a telescope to examine the skies, being engaged by Star Trek or other space science fictional dramatization, becoming excited in a museum experience all informal learning arenas. Yes, some were even inspired by teachers in science classes but many were turned on to science and space exploration by informal learning experiences. One of our challenges is to blend the informal with the formal education experiences.

        In the Texas Centennial in 1936 there was a Disney film and exhibit on the US Constitution and how a bill became a law. An illustrated book was also handed out to reinforce the film. For some reason I was fascinated by this exhibit and returned to it several times. I kept the book and wore it out. I have no idea why it was so fascinating to me, but it served me well through out my life. I even used it in the Marine Corps and in my work life.

        As I look back it was perhaps the most important lesson I have learned. By the time I became and adult I understood the three branches of government and how they interlocked with one another. I think my undeerstanding was better than most of my colleagues.

  8. Frank, thanks for sharing this bit of informal learning that turned out to be a keystone in your life. It would be interesting to have a wider discussion on the informal learning that has impacted our lives.

    In the early ’80s when PCs were just beginning to appear on college campuses, they were kept in labs and jealously guarded by the IT folks and the data-processing and word-processing (remember those?) departments. Teachers in the other disciplines could barely get their foot in the door.

    In our English department, one of the early adopters actually set up a CAI lab for his students with a few Apple IIs and Commodore 64s. This was in a tiny room off one of the computer labs. For my personal use, I got a Kaypro 2 CP/M computer and was in heaven.

    I opened up the chassis and changed the single-sided drives to double-sided and felt the power of “unlimited” storage on 360K floppy disks! A year later, when I got an IBM luggable PC, things really opened up. I swapped out one of the floppies for a 20MB hard drive. As new storage media became available, I swapped them in: 1.2MB floppy drives, then 1.4MB 3.5″ drives, etc.

    At about the same time, clone PCs were proliferating and we were able to mail order cheap cases, power supplies, motherboards, drives, RAM, CPUs, etc. separately, slap them together, and build our own systems.

    On our campus, I was one of the early non-IT staff to get an internet account. This was before the Web became popular. Via a modem and phone lines, I was online with email and exploring and participating in professional listserv communities.

    With a freeware program, I set up a bulletin board and actually began experimenting with online teaching, working with a couple of students who were tech savvy. This was in the mid-’80s, and all of this learning was informal.

    This early start was completely self-directed. I sought help along the way from some IT folks, colleagues, etc. when I needed it, but I wasn’t being pushed or pulled by forces outside myself. The primary motivating factor for me has been enjoyment. Learning about and applying the hard and soft technology is fun. The fact that it has professional implications for me — online teaching, online publications — is an added bonus.

    I’d be interested in hearing how others have parlayed informal learning into lifelong explorations and careers.

  9. The astronaut anecdote demonstrates not that informal learning trumps all but that classroom learning is deeply flawed. Unless you have a really talented teacher, you’re more likely to be turned off by the typical science course, labs, videos, and all.

    We’re talking about a deep problem that has no simple solution. After all, you cannot expect large numbers of people to select informal science education opportunities, and you know the high school students will have two (in some states, three) years of science. College students get at least one year.

    These courses continue to teach in what I think of as “names and dates history” style. In other words, they fill you up with laws, formulas, vocabulary, procedures, and the like. But, as Carl Sagan once wrote, “Where’s the soaring sense of wonder…?” Where’s the joy of discovery? Where’s the fun of seeing something for the first time?

    The simple fact that most, maybe nearly all, K-12 science teachers have never done science research, has something to do with the problem. That’s why it’s so difficult. There’s much more to this topic, too much to post in a mere reply. My personal blog deal with it extensively.

  10. […] Open Online Classes: Is Retention an Effective Measure of Success? – […]

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